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TINYpulse StartsA year ago, I sold everything, stuffed the rest in storage, and bought one-way tickets to New Zealand for my wife, our then ten-month old daughter, and me to embark on a “careercation.”

The first goal of the trip was to create amazing shared family memories. The second goal was to interview entrepreneurs from different disciplines like the wine maker in Auckland and the fruit trader in Shanghai to learn about their wins and stubbed toes when it came to leadership, culture, and people management. I then blogged about it so others could learn from their experience.

The third goal was to get clarity on what my next venture would be. At the end, my trip and interviews inspired me to start TINYpulse, and the following are the key learnings that I took away.

Follow Passion and Dreams

1. Inside Out. In the past, before starting a company, I would do a S-W-O-T analysis and evaluate customers, competitors, market size, etc. When I first dropped out of business school to start NetConversions, my co-founder and I worked 100+ hours a week. But I rarely stopped to ask myself: “If money wasn’t an issue, would I still be working on what I’m working on now?” or “When I describe what I do, how often do I use “fun” or “joy” as an adjective?”

Many of the top regrets that people have when they’re about to die is about the courage to follow their dreams and passions. In addition, I believe that if I follow my passions — that the profits will follow too.

Living Cultural Values

2. Define cultural values and be willing to hire and fire by them. One of my favorite interviews during my careercation was with Andrea Culligan, the CEO of The Unimail Group in Sydney. She went through a very painful process to redefine her company’s culture after they had hit rock bottom.

Collectively, they created a new set of cultural values that guides the company today. They reinforce it by role-playing how colleagues should handle certain situations based on their values. Finally, Andrea and I are both fans of Tony Hsieh of Zappos. Tony pointed out to Andrea that a company must be willing to hire and fire by their cultural values. Otherwise, they aren’t cultural values but just cultural points.

3. Prepare to dance alone. Stuart Finlayson, CEO of GoFundraise, emphasized how lonely it can be as a founder, but we have to keep believing. He shared a story about how Cameron Herold highlighted that founders have to keep dancing even when they’re dancing alone. The hope is that over time people will slowly jump in like this famous video. Just make sure that you’re ready for the plunge and that you have the right support mechanisms in place like a network of other entrepreneurs, advisors, friends, and family to keep you going.

Constrain Growth and Say No

4. Be willing to constrain growth. Raise your hand if you’ve ever been in the position of hiring someone even if they didn’t fit with our culture, values, and vision. My hand is up. I’ve been guilty of that especially if the alternative is to forego revenue by not hiring someone who is “good enough.”

In hindsight, I believe that culture is so fragile, especially in the startup phase, that I have to make a big admission to myself. I will not hire someone unless they fit our values and culture.

And yes, I will also be willing to turn away business and opportunities to protect that culture. I feel if I bend a little, even with one hire, it’s becomes too slippery of a slope that undermines all my foundation and investment in the special culture I’m trying to build.


5. Create personal and professional vision. If I don’t have a clear goal, there’s no chance that I’ll achieve it. During my trip, I wanted to reset my preconceived notions, biases, and viewpoints. I did a lot of long runs, journaling, and meditating.

Then I started writing down what my personal and professional visions were going to be. But I struggled mightily. I started and stopped and just couldn’t get into a rhythm. So in frustration, I started searching online for vision docs, thought leaders, videos, slides, etc.

I finally stumbled upon Ari Weinzweig and his folksy, down-to-earth, simple approach to visioning. He breaks down a vision to: “It’s not as mystical or out there as it sounds. A vision, quite simply, is a picture of what success will be at a particular time in the future. It encompasses answers to an array of questions: What does our organization look like? How big is it? What are we famous for? Why does anyone care about what we do? How do people who work here feel about their jobs? How do I, as the founder, feel about the business? What’s my role in it? Complete the visioning process, and you’ll have a clearly articulated end for your organization—something that won’t change every time the market or your mood shifts.”

In particular, I resonate with the idea of starting with “what am I going to be proud that I accomplished?” This framing gets the juices flowing in a positive direction instead of thinking of all the negative and barriers that block us from reaching our goals.

Our company vision follows Ari’s approach and is quite long, but our mission is simply “to make employees happier.” We believe that if we accomplish that, then engagement, retention, service, and results all improve.

6. Build what others want not what I want to create. I used to think that lying on the beach for a week and getting a bad suntan would refresh me. In reality, I had to get far away from Seattle in both time and distance to be able to honestly hear and internalize what others were sharing with me. At the end of every interview, I always asked one simple question: “What’s one pain point you have when it comes to managing people, that if I take away – you’d gladly pay for?”

I kept trying to take the feedback and view it within the lens of the offering I wanted to create. But finally I realized that one of the most haunting feelings for any manager was when an employee submits their two weeks notice out of the blue. Organizations have real-time dashboards for their web traffic, finances, inventory, etc., but why not for their most important asset — their people?

It was this need that I heard that inspired me to start TINYpulse. I know that if I had plunged into another startup without taking the time to recharge, listen, and honesty assess where my passion and market need intersect, we would not be where we are today.

Most people think that being an entrepreneur is one of the “sexiest” occupations these days. But reality is that it can be very lonely and has extremely dark corners.

I’m often overwhelmed by the endless decisions and tasks at hand, so it’s always good to have a well thought out foundation to turn to and to build on. At the end of the day, it’s much more fun to dance alone when at least I  know where I’m going.

 David Niu is an angel investor and serial entrepreneur. He dropped out of business school to start his first company and is now working on TINYpulse. You can follow him on Twitter @davidniu.

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