In 2012, I was working on a master’s degree in food studies with one goal in mind: I wanted to teach people to cook at home, with more pleasure and confidence, in the hopes of supporting local growers, sustainability, and families’ well-being in the process. People bond and connect when they eat together, but modern life doesn’t always leave enough opportunities to do that. The target customer for the business I decided to start, in order to change that, was a busy New Yorker with limited time and kitchen space but a desire to reconnect with real food and to gather the skills and inspiration to fulfill it.
But while I built my startup, Haven’s Kitchen, on a strong social-impact foundation, it still needed to make money. By its third year, the company was turning a profit and employing over 70 staffers, so I decided it was time to draw up a growth plan. My team was full of people who wanted to do more and were eager to shift from a small-business mind-set to a scalable-business mind-set.
Thing only thing was, we all wanted to do it mindfully. Growth for the sake of growth was never the goal; neither was raising venture money. As a founder, my top objective was to develop career paths for my staff and to teach more people how to cook. Which raised a couple of fundamental questions: Is “mindful entrepreneurship” even possible, or a contradiction in terms? And would it help us achieve those deeper goals, rather than scale for scale’s sake?
As I’ve since discovered, there are more ways to apply mindfulness to the startup experience than I’d imagined. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Dig into the stuff that makes your brain hurt
When you’re feeling discomfort, insecurity, or anything unpleasant, allow yourself to really feel it, don’t push it away. Don’t gloss over it, and don’t medicate it. This is a good rule for human beings generally, not just entrepreneurs, but I learned it all over again in the startup experience.
Most founders already know (in theory, at least) that when things don’t go our way, it’s an opportunity to learn, grow, and find other opportunities. But it’s harder to approach the “failure gospel” mindfully–to avoid “catastrophizing” negative experiences, and to embrace rather than neglect the issues that confuse you or the projects that seem daunting. I’ve learned to dig into what my brain naturally avoids. In my experience, there are always people who can explain those things to me as long as I’m willing to put the time in to learning them. Chances are those learning experiences will be significant. I’ve also learned to ask my team for feedback and encourage everyone to zero in on pain spots rather than pretend they don’t exist.
Clear thinking helps even amid (inevitable) chaos
Just like any other practice, the more you train your mind, the better it gets at making thoughtful decisions instead of reactive ones. That’s the basic premise of meditation, and it’s helped me as an entrepreneur, too.
Respond, don’t react. That can mean setting a parental leave policy before anyone needs it, or a project map that provides clear structure and delegates responsibilities and objectives. A healthy business attracts a lot of “opportunities,” and there are always some that make more sense than others. It won’t always be sales or customer acquisition, but there always needs to be a primary, measurable goal for every new project you take on. Measure success against that goal, and that goal only. And give it a deadline to avoid sunk-cost syndrome. These are crucial habits for ensuring clarity amid the chaos that awaits when you’re trying to scale up.
Do no harm
Entrepreneurs are notoriously poor managers; they have to learn on the job how to lead well. Being good at something and having ideas are both very different from managing a team. But in my experience, trusting your team to tell you the truth is a critical first step, particularly when it comes to hiring. After all, it’s very hard to unhire. Take your time, trust your instincts, and constantly invite your team members to gut-check them.
What all this adds up to is a respect for the time, feelings, motivations, and needs of others–as well as your own. Or, basically: Do no harm. And don’t judge, because you really have no idea what’s going on in other people’s lives. It also means not allowing a bad situation to go on too long, which ultimately is a disservice to all involved. If someone isn’t right for a job, let them go. I’ve found that most people who don’t do well at a job are simply unhappy doing it.
It’s all about energy
There’s a whole universe of stuff we can’t see–that feeling when you meet someone, the way a place makes you feel. Vibes are real!
For a business that means sharing ideas and resources, and allowing them all to flow freely from one person to the next and back again. There’s no need to hoard, no need to compete. Always keep in mind that as an entrepreneur, you’re putting something energetic into the world, not just a product or service. The more positive energy you bring to that effort, the more it expands. It will never hurt you to be generous and supportive. In fact, it just makes you–and everyone your organization touches–stronger.