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Tammy Kahn Headshot

If You Can't Pay It Backward, Pay It Forward

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I started my company with my co-founder back in 2009. We had an idea and thought, let's give it a shot. We had no network of influencers to speak of, no major prior successes. We thought, if we build it, they will, to an extent, come. We built our software, we organized our marketing, we even gathered some customers, an impressive amount considering the bootstrapped operation. We didn't know from raising rounds of funding. We didn't have any advisors. My co-founder was in Norfolk, England (we are generous when we say we "started in London"); if you look on a map you'll see Norfolk isn't exactly a thriving metropolis. When we started to get some traction I moved from New York to join him and our small team in the UK, and we kept on building, and experienced some mild success.

After about 12 months, we took on a great advisor (@lbrynleyjones), who moved some mountains for us to get an intro to @AlecStern, one of the founding team members of a very successful Massachusetts company, who then himself went so above and beyond the call of duty to help us that I had to pinch myself to make sure it was real; and it is here that my article really begins, with the concept of paying it forward, a theme I've seen over and over again in the tech scene in Massachusetts, which is where my MarketMeSuite now calls home.

Stronger Than The Sum Of Its Parts

There is a very strong community of something called "co-working" here. Simply put, co-working lets you set up shop in a space next to other companies doing cool things. The idea is that synergies will find themselves and that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We have had the privilege of being in two such communities and each one has left us better connected, more energized, and focused than we ever would have been without it.

It was in the Cambridge Innovation Center that I first heard the expression that is the title of this article. Geoff Mamlet (@gmamlet) Managing Director of the CIC, was very helpful in making an introduction to someone I needed, among other things. I emailed: "Geoff, you've been so helpful to me, how can I repay you?" He replied with a simple one line email: "In Massachusetts, if you can't pay it backward, pay it forward."

I believe we can all embrace the "pay it forward" mentality, no matter what phase of business or life we are in, provided we can get past a few roadblocks that stand in our way.

Four Common Roadblocks:

1. My neighbor's success somehow makes me a failure.

This is a tough one, because when you're in the trenches fighting for your company's success, it can feel like a kick in the teeth when another company finds their way to their goal, and doesn't always make you feel particularly generous. It's only human nature to feel this way, and those of us are competitive feel it more acutely. But think of it this way: success has a wide margin, and when good things start to happen, there is almost always some kind of knock on effect. When something good happens to a Massachusetts company, especially, that is good for all of us. Be happy for the company, and don't discount your value. Just because someone has succeeded on paper doesn't preclude the need to have friends in business.

2. I don't have anything to pay forward.

It can be the simplest of things. If you are open to find opportunities for random acts of kindness, they will present themselves. Just the other day someone put on the WorkBar social network (the co-working space MarketMeSuite currently occupies) that they needed to borrow a power adapter, so I replied and let her borrow. Be open to these opportunities, no matter how small, and they will find you.

3. The world doesn't care about me.

I've heard this before: "What's the world ever done for me?" Well, here's my suggestion: you make the first move with the universe. Don't wait for kindness to be bestowed upon you, go out and start being the change you seek. A recent study was done that showed that it actually makes you a happier person if you give, rather than receive.

4. I feel guilty for my success.

This one is something that I've seen a lot of people in both America and the UK struggle with. But here's the reality: if we want to live in a place that lets us shoot for the moon, not everything is going to be equal. I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth, I needed to (and continue to) work hard toward success, and I know there are people out there who have to work even harder than me. The free market is the great equalizer in all of this, because we are fortunate enough to live in a place where you can take a shot at something. If you operate under the mantra of "paying it forward" then your success benefits society as a whole.

To that end, I had a conversation with a prominent Massachusetts investor recently who said "it's an expensive walk to work." When I asked why, he said "because I take a route that passes as many people I can help along the way as possible, and I always have something in my pocket for them." This is just one example of many, but hopefully you see what I mean. I do not believe success something anyone should be ashamed of, especially if you embrace paying it forward.

The Spirit Of America

The official slogan in Massachusetts is "The Spirit of America."
I've sometimes heard the unofficial slogan in this state referred to as "Home of Masshole Drivers," so I make no promises about the spirit when you get a on a highway... In the business world, however, the pay it forward spirit is very real, and I hope it continues to grow!

Share Your Experience

How is the concept of paying it forward impacting your business and your life? I would love to hear your "Pay it Forward" in business story. Please comment, or tweet!