Most sane people would not choose to start their first company at the same time as having teenagers. But it's turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Forget all those winsome ideas about "birthing" companies: Running a startup is a heck of a lot like being a teenager.
The other morning as I raced through the dark streets of our town to deliver my son and two buddies to early morning band practice at the high school, we had a typical conversation:
Me: "So, did you finish that mask project last night? It's due today, right?"
Me: "What did you do? Did you decorate it? Did you find some elastic?"
Him: "Umm, I got some black paper and made two holes for eyes. It'll do."
He was, it turned out, entirely correct. There were no points assigned to the "mask" project -- the teacher just wanted them to bring in some kind of prop to get them in the mood to read a Shakespearean play. Driving at a more leisurely pace to my office, I realized that he had astutely executed a "minimally viable product" -- a just-good-enough prototype that let him see what would happen next. (He got to be Romeo.)
It didn't take long to realize that many of the unwritten rules about teenage life apply to startups, too.
*Make friends. A lot of friends. Hang out with people you want to be like. Hey, it worked for Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn). And as Hoffman says in his new book, The Start-Up of You: "No matter how brilliant your mind or strategy, if you're playing a solo game, you'll always lose out to a team."
*Don't let a little thing like risk stand in your way. Dave McClure (500 Startups) may be one of Silicon Valley's most in-your-face advocates of risk taking. (What else should you expect from a guy who dubs himself "Sith Lord.") A favorite quip: "The biggest risk for big business is *not* taking risk."
*Rule breaking is good. Mocking the establishment is part of the code. (Just don't confess that you secretly hope that maybe, one day, too, you'll be part of the club.) Google wrote the book on this one in its founders letter during its IPO: "Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one." Big, profitable and at the top of the pack -- that's all fine. Just keeping fighting the good fight, guys.
*You will have no money. And that's a feature not a bug. Lots of teenagers invent things because they can't afford them; same with startups. Tweets Hoffman (#startYOU): "If you want to see how resourceful you can be, shrink your budget. Move your deadlines up. You'll be more resilient to eventual hardships."
*You need gear, gadgets, software. (But see above: they'd better be cheap or ones you invent). Happily the webby world is here to serve you, starting with loads of open source software. Some of the best apps are almost free: Thank you, Heroku, MailChimp, Dropbox, Balsamiq, Googledocs, Rondee, Facebook, SurveyMonkey and all the other snazzy tools Stanford prof Steve Blank mentions here.
*Most of your meals should be based on the four food groups: pizza, takeout, caffeine and sugar. Maybe this is why established companies like Google and Facebook go overboard in hiring gourmet cooks?
*Pivot! No matter what you're doing today, what you're going to try tomorrow will be soooo right! Brisk conversation here at Quora on exactly how to define the pivot. Once again, any teen can show you how to abandon a faltering plan for something that seems more promising. Gymnast today; biologist tomorrow. Or the other way around.
*Did I mention sugar? Lots. Of. This.
*Everyone will tell you that you have great potential even when you feel like screaming. A clever entrepreneur once observed that the only "billion-dollar business plan" is the one that isn't yet written. Over inflated expectations for a startup can be almost as crippling as reckless criticism. Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck encourages parents to praise the effort not the potential. Startups need the same kind of thoughtful mentoring.
You will fall in love with what you're doing every day and be happy. Then you'll fall out of love and be sad. And then be happy again. Then it will be time for lunch. Ben Horowitz, one of the most thoughtful entrepreneurs-turned-VCs, wrote eloquently on his blog about just how hard it is for entrepreneurs to manage their own psychology. He starts by pointing out: "The first problem is that everybody learns to be a CEO by being a CEO." That's certainly a problem that every teenager can relate to. Horowitz's coping strategy? "Make some friends."
*And that minimally viable product? Yeah. Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, wrote the book on creating a minimum viable product namely creating the product that will let you collect the most customer feedback with the least amount of effort. It's probably the toughest lesson to absorb and may be why some folks including Peter Thiel contend that teenagers aren't just a role model for entrepreneurs but should be entrepreneurs.
More power to those entrepreneurs who aren't yet old enough to drink or maybe even drive. I will humbly admit that I have a lot to learn. But Mark Twain offers a note of solace when he wrote: "When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years."
Betsy (Elizabeth) Corcoran is co-founder and CEO of EdSurge, the fastest growing weekly newsletter on education technology.
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