3 Lessons from an ‘Accidental Entrepreneur’ Turned Founder-CEO
I was in my mid-30s when I started my company — my curiosity and determination far outstripped my expertise
That mantra was introduced into popular culture by a 1980s “Saturday Night Live” character named Stuart Smalley, who mindfully recited his daily affirmation into an ornate, full-length mirror. While my twenty-something self (at the time) enjoyed the sheer comic value of Stuart’s shtick, it wasn’t until later on in my life that I would realize the indelible impact that Stuart’s words had on me. In fact, they were a small seed planted in my mind that foreshadowed my entrepreneurial success with founding my company Hint, and I think could be the same enabler for others.
Today, millions of individuals are choosing to become entrepreneurs. In our lifetime, we may never see more career reassessments and pivots than those taking place during this Covid pandemic, which is already showing signs of outpacing even the 2007–2009 Great Recession in new business creation.
Many of these new founders are just where I was back in the early aughts, starting down the entrepreneurial path a bit later in life. Let’s call them unlikely or accidental entrepreneurs. That’s how I saw myself — and still do! It wasn’t my vision from birth to start a company. I was in my mid-thirties when I launched Hint (with three young children; pregnant with my fourth), and like so many new entrepreneurs that I’ve talked to over this past year, I was embarking on a business where my curiosity and determination far outstripped my expertise in the industry I was entering.
Lessons Learned From a Founder-CEO’s Short Maternity Leave
I signed a ~$2 million term sheet from the the triage bed, forwarded it to my legal team, and then gave birth
For these newly minted founders, Stuart Smalley’s Daily Affirmation may be just the tonic to keep them going, as naysayers, doubters, and skeptical industry veterans (you know, the folks who always know exactly how things should get done) interject themselves on the road to success.
My own story is a tale of grit, perseverance, and quite frankly a lot of question asking, starting with “how?” and “why?” I went from being a tech executive with a dependency on diet soda to a founder of a company, staking out an entirely new category in the beverage industry — one truly based on health. Initially, everything I knew about beverages was based on a sample of one: myself. I was addicted to sweet drinks, and I had convinced myself that the word “diet” on the label meant that the product must be healthy, or at the very least health-conscious. Years of drinking diet soda ended when I tested giving up my diet soda for water with slices of fruit in it. That two-week trial showed me how bad I had really been to my body. I suspected that many other consumers of diet drinks had no idea what I had been lucky enough to discover. Perhaps I could develop a water with fruit in, get it on the store shelves and help a lot of people drink better-tasting water with no sweeteners?
So I went to work, asking questions and searching for the right solution. Within six months, the first bottles of Hint water hit the shelves in San Francisco. Fast-forward fifteen years later: Hint is the fastest-growing independent beverage company in the country and the largest privately held independent beverage company that doesn’t have a relationship with the large soda companies.
Over the last decade and a half I learned many things, but three more than any stand out for this next generation of accidental entrepreneurs:
Experience is a double-edged sword. When you know what’s possible because you’ve been there, you know only what’s possible because you’ve been there. History tells the story of boundaries being pushed and breakthroughs being achieved by fresh, curious minds. Don’t underestimate the power of not having all the answers and questioning legacy thinking and long-held industry practices.
Everyone has fear and doubts. The key is pushing past them. The best athletes in the world; the greatest virtuoso concert violinists; the most lauded actors and performers — they all have DOUBTS. That never goes away. But the successful ones amongst them face their doubts, recognize what they are learning, and don’t cower from challenges. Here’s one secret I’ve learned over the years: when you confront your fears, you start to gain resilience to overcome fears — and figure out how to tackle obstacles that might stand in your way. The more success you have at taking on your fears, the more confidence you gain to take on new challenges. It’s a virtuous cycle.
The Real Solution to Impostor Syndrome
A therapist explains why it’s not just about finding confidence
It’s okay to fly the airplane while you’re building it. In fact, it’s necessary. If you’re waiting for all the stars to align, you’ll never get your business idea off the ground. As long as you can deliver on your product’s basic promise and make sure that you are delivering a product or service that is safe you are ready. Start. Because guess what? You can never succeed if you don’t start! For me, it took a trip to my local Whole Foods, and a conversation with the manager stocking the beverage aisle to get me to start. I couldn’t find any sort of still water on the shelves with real fruit, no sugar, and no sweeteners of any kind. So when I asked him if he’d stock my (hypothetical) product and he shrugged, “Why not?,” I set off to formulate my first batch of Hint water. And I never looked back.
To Stuart I say: Thanks for the advice. We’re all good enough, smart enough, and likable enough, doggone it. This next-generation of entrepreneur — whether they’re a newly-fangled bagel store owner who used to be in IT; or the stay-at-home mom now starting a college prep business; or the long-time HR professional working out that long-repressed aggravation by opening a karate dojo — they’ll need a healthy dose of passion and curiosity to weather the ups and downs of starting a business. There’s no guarantee of success, but I can assure them that they will learn more about themselves than any self-help guide could ever teach them.