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For entrepreneurs building a business, the initial startup stage is an exhilarating time: you’re energized by your idea and engrossed in building the business. It feels like it’ll always be fun. The hard truth is that in building any business, there are peaks and valleys. When you hit a valley, it can be difficult to stay inspired and engaged — and this is the time to persevere, to remind yourself you’re in this for the long haul and to stick with it. When you approach your business as a marathon, not a sprint, you’re using the power of grit.
According to Angela Duckworth, a researcher and MacArthur Fellowship winner, the author of “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” and TED talk phenomenon with more than 13 million video views, grit is “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”
As an entrepreneur-turned-angel investor, I mistakenly assumed all entrepreneurs were gritty. To me, those with grit self-selected to build a business from scratch and, of course, they knew they had the fortitude to succeed. I developed this naive thinking from my own experience.
I built a company, then sold it to a publicly held firm within my industry. There’s no question I couldn’t have done this if each person on my team, especially me, hadn’t been gritty. We encountered numerous obstacles and challenges scaling the business to 100 countries, handling patent lawsuits, among other legal matters, intense competition and employee issues.
If I look at each of these obstacles as valleys, we faced numerous opportunities to throw in the towel. Had we given up, we would have disappointed countless customers, employees and investors in the company who were depending on my grit — a dogged perseverance — to lead the company to exponential growth and an inevitable exit to everyone’s benefit.
Two early-stage businesses I invested in are textbook examples of grit. Both faced colossal challenges outside their control during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The overnight shutdown across market segments, plus changes in business practices and consumer behavior, emerged as a grittiness proving ground for each company. One thrived. The other folded.
The company that thrived is a novel better-for-you beverage business that, before COVID-19, distributed its products through physical stores. It had minimal online presence. The company that folded developed innovative software for the hospitality industry.
Just as the pandemic gripped the nation and the world, the beverage company Waku was about to launch new products to new store locations. For a company relying solely on brick-and-mortar stores for consumer packaged goods (CPG) sales, trials and samples are critical for getting shoppers to sample their products. The pandemic led to abrupt cancellations of all in-store product demonstrations and trials.
Companywide revenues dropped considerably due to the pandemic. Despite these challenges, the beverage company was able to pivot to an e-commerce strategy. They developed targeted social media advertising and e-mails, which led to a more precise understanding about who would likely become future customers.
The company founder Juan Giraldo kept investors updated on its strategy pivot and milestones. Company reporting was unequivocally transparent and frequent, leading some of us to invest more in order to boost the founder’s efforts. The company has now emerged on the other side of the pandemic mountain with 100% sales growth over the prior year.
Duckworth tells us there are two ways to grow grit — tapping into the well of perseverance inside you and from the outside through guidance from others. For you to grow your grit, you must want to have it.
Here’s my advice for developing your grit and using it:
- Approach your early-stage company as if you are in a marathon, not a sprint. Draw strength from deep inside you, just as a marathoner or long-distance swimmer would. Expand your limits of mental toughness. Your team will follow your lead because it’s your responsibility to model grit and resilience. Remember: the company is not only about you. It’s about your team as well. They look to you for guidance, and they notice how you comport and present yourself as a leader. While your passion may be profound, it’s your commitment that will positively infect and affect the entire organization. The result will also be a halo effect on your advisers, board members and current and future investors.
- Develop a team that supports you and your business and offers on-target advice. This includes advisers, mentors, team members and investors who believe in you and your mission. Don’t hesitate to reach out to others within and outside your network to help guide your business and give you support. Listen to feedback with an open and accepting mind.
- Don’t wait to ask for help from your advisory board when you’re up against challenges, and always be transparent. Stay in regular touch with your investors, advisers, mentors and team members when the news is good or bad. For investors and advisers, it’s best to communicate once a quarter or at least every six months. Think of your investors and advisers as part of the team. Include your asks in your note to them, and you’ll find they’ll be willing to help, whether in human capital or investing more capital. They know the entrepreneurial journey is full of hills and valleys and will want to help where they can.
- See every challenge as an opportunity to solve a problem. This is another test of your grit: be ready to do whatever it takes to make your business work. Realize that most businesses evolve from their original concept. This is why it’s critical to be open to new information and make mid-course corrections or pivots when needed.
- Stay doggedly focused on your long-term goals in the face of short-term setbacks or obstacles. Have ways to tap into your optimistic mindset. Gather every ounce of inner strength to persevere through the more challenging times by keeping your eyes on how to move forward, and keep up the momentum.
Not all of us are born gritty. Grit is a trait you can pull from inside you or grow with the help of others. Most important: Being gritty is a sure-fire way to bring your entrepreneurial vision to life and achieve your goals. Put it another way, it means that along with your passion, you’re focused and determined, and you never give up.
Originally published Sept. 12, 2021.