This spring, I set a goal for myself: to learn how to ride a unicycle, with the ultimate goal being to do mountain unicycling (Muni Video). I had another goal, to launch a startup, Ometrics.com. During this process, I started noticing two things.
Experts say it takes 15 to 30 hours to learn how to ride a unicycle. I found it best not to count the hours — and I recommend the same for a startup. Here are some hard-earned lessons about learning how to ride a unicycle and launching a startup.
On a unicycle, you have to lean forward to move forward. Much like skiing, it can be a bit nerve-racking when you start. But you must keep in mind the alternative. It is better to fall forward than fall backward. In fact, you should practice falling forward, by mounting with one foot, then stepping over and continuing to walk.
With a startup, you must always be pushing yourself forward, even when it feels uncomfortable, scary or off-balance. For example: If you are shy, then picking up the phone to make cold calls for your first sales is something you just have to get over. If you are a miser, you must value money by ROI, not by comparing it with some other value, like your food bill. There are a number of examples that might push you out of your comfort zone: employee management and trust, hiring and firing, etc. For some, it is listening to customers and not letting what they hear affect their egos.
Get up after falling down
On a unicycle, this is obvious, at least for me; I fall down every time I stop. When I started, I held onto a deck railing, fence or wall. I would go a couple of feet. Then I could go farther along the wall. Then I started riding with no wall, just holding on to a friend, or a pole… and then I would fall within five feet. Eventually, your body figures it out. And you start going farther and farther.
When you’re starting a business, if you have a fear of failing you should think about another career. There is no way you can build a business without experiencing failures. Failing is how you learn and, more important, it is how you create a product or service that will be successful. You must be persistent and not get easily frustrated when something does not go as planned. Sit back, reflect and learn from it. Be prepared to have a setback. Have a backup plan if your launch or update does not go as expected. Be prepared to be get caught off guard.
Put the ball of your foot on the pedal, not the center of your foot
Having the ball of your foot on the pedal, as if you had cleats on, provides more control as you pedal. This fine control is needed as your body figures out the micro adjustments needed to stay balanced.
One key to any startup is to be nimble. Your business will experience many changes and adjustments as it grows. Your business plan or road map is usually out of date by the time you finish it, so don’t spend too much time on it and spin in “analysis paralysis.” As you learn more about your customers, the market and the changes that are always happening, you must be able to steer or adjust the business so you always have the best yield. (By yield I mean customer satisfaction, market position and revenue.)
Look ahead, not down
When unicycling, as with motorcycling, you look where you are going to go. If you look at the truck coming toward you, then you’ll get to see it, real close and personal. On a unicycle, keep your eyes on the horizon: chin up, back straight. Looking down will inevitably cause you to go down. If you look left, you will go left.
With any startup, you must keep your eyes on the future. Otherwise you will miss the market trends and end up offering a product or service nobody wants. Details are important, but don’t forget to pop your head up to make sure your ship does not run aground. The other point is not to get sidetracked with every idea. Test the idea quickly and move on. Keep your vision on the horizon; it may be blurry, but the general direction is what you need.
Get the unicycle that fits
The wrong fit on a unicycle and the type of unicycle can make learning really hard. Small wheels — 20″ or 24″ — are generally easier to learn on. Have the seat adjusted so your leg is almost straight when the pedal is down.
In business, use the right technology for the job, and don’t use outdated technology that has no future. Your business needs to grow with the times, not to get held back by a poor tech choice. There are a lot of services that can save you time such as customer service management systems. Take your time and pick the service you can grow into, changing systems can be difficult. Do the job right the first time.
Have a support team
The best way to learn to unicycle is to have a friend hold your elbow with one hand and your hand with the other. Make sure the person understands that you’ll be pulling up and pushing down, forward and backward. Have them walk next to you as you slowly pedal.
Ask everyone you know about your business. You never know where an important piece of information will come from, or what unexpected contact can bring a fruitful introduction. Listen to your friends, and ask for honest feedback. If you do not, you will most likely go insane — or at least create something in a bubble.
Take a break
Learning to ride is not something you can read and figure out. Your body has to learn — and this takes no mental energy except persistence. It is important to take breaks before things become futile. Your body is still learning. I once did not ride for a week, but when I got back on I went even farther than before.
Building a business takes endless hours of work. You must prioritize. What has the biggest impact? Know that not everything else will get done. Working smarter does not mean always working. When you are doing other things, your brain is still working out problems. Try to relax your brain to allow deeper thoughts to emerge. Take time to do other activities, such as drawing or doodling. Listen to or play music. Exercise, whether it is just walking or a heavy workout. When you separate yourself from your work, you will come back energized and more creative. Wait 24 hours for important decisions; you may come up with another solution overnight. I often have a pad or recording device within arm’s reach so I can jot down an idea. I do this for two reasons: One is not to forget it, and the other is so I can forget it instead of ruminating on it.
Be balanced when you start
Before you start pedaling, exhale and make sure your body is balanced. If you start off–balance, then you will fall down right away. Taking an extra five seconds to check your balance before starting will give you more successful attempts instead of more frustrating ones.
Do not jump into work each day. Take a minute, and reflect on the whole business. Where is it going? What does it need? What has to be done first? Delegate when possible, and save time for both mundane work and strategic work. When you start your business, try not to be too ADHD. Work out each idea in your head before you build it. Compare the different ideas to make sure the one you test is the best choice and the best use of your time.
Wear a helmet and wrist guards, because you are going to fall. Most of the time you can walk away, but one or two falls backward or a complete face plant can delay your training. If you are going on trails it is recommended to wear shin guards. Those pedals really hurt when they hit your shins.
Risk in business is inevitable. Unexpected security and legal issues don’t happen that often, but when they do it can be a big setback, or even put you out of business. Make sure you have an attorney and an accountant, and don’t skimp on software security.
Do not compare yourself with others
If I compared my progress with how my daughter was doing, I would have given unicycling up a long time ago. Everyone learns at a different pace. Judge only yourself and only how you did that last time.
Be careful not to deflate yourself when looking at your competitors. Keep an eye on them, but bear in mind that there are many ways to succeed in business — and not all of them have to do with product features. Many companies have come late into the market and built a business that is more agile with newer technology, or that have had a worse product but better customer service.
What’s the point of life if you are not having fun? Smile, and laugh at yourself.
Do not build a business you are not passionate about. If you first thought is your exit strategy, then your are in the wrong business. Without passion for your business, you will never be able to put in the long hours and think clearly during critical decisions, or be creative and overcome large obstacles.
So by now you are wondering: Did I ever learn to ride a unicycle? Well, sort of. My daughter is now working on riding backward, just to mock me, and I can ride about 100 yards before I lose control. Ometrics.com is now in beta. So all in all I am still leaning forward, and the summer is not over yet.