These sagas are rounded out by the collection of stories in Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days, by Jessica Livingston, an excellent collection of interviews with successful tech startup founders. This entrepreneurial Scheherazade shares numerous tales of how small, passionate discoveries can produce huge expectations, tease great fortunes, harm friendships, and — with the right measure of experience and capital — grow into big business.
In No Man’s Land: What to Do When Your Company Is Too Big to Be Small but Too Small to Be Big, Doug Tatum explores the perilous zone a company enters when it has outgrown the habits and practices that fueled its early growth, yet is not mature enough to cope with the next phase of development.
Business Is Personal
Kim Lavine’s memoir-cum-business-primer breaks new ground in the crowded field of startup sagas. By seamlessly blending the epiphanies that she gained through launching a business with practical lessons, Lavine has packaged a core set of new-venture tenets into something fresh and relevant. Lavine frames her tale with the message that “the virtue of all success is victory over all one’s personal shortcomings.”
Her story begins with a small “eureka” moment when she realizes that the cute, corn-filled pillows (which can be warmed in a microwave) she created as gifts for her children’s teachers might have commercial promise. Naming them “Wuvits,” and forming a kitchen-table venture to brand and sell them, Lavine gradually sees that she can build a real business from these seeds. This small opportunity gains urgency when her husband loses his job.
Like many determined entrepreneurs, Lavine encounters a humbling string of mistakes, failures, cons, charlatans, and small victories in the course of coaxing her enterprise to take baby steps. Constantly disappointed by sales reps with more sizzle than steak, lawyers who patronize her, employees who fail to get on board, and a manufacturer that produces tens of thousands more units than are needed, Lavine gradually develops the wisdom and self-confidence to learn from her mistakes — and in the process, she perseveres through the experience to form healthy relationships and institutionalize the right management steps to move forward. Her growth from an undercapitalized trinket company run by a timid woman to a sufficiently capitalized company with a vivid (and protected) brand selling through multiple channels, sourcing globally, and supported by industry veterans, is both instructional and inspirational.
Lavine’s book is worth reading to remember what endures in the sea of change. For one thing, she presents fresh insights about gender and enterprise. Unlike most books written by or about women in business, Lavine reckons with sexual politics and differences without trivializing them or overplaying their significance. When she starts the company, Lavine finds herself apologizing for (or even hiding) her children when business meetings conflict with her parenting time. Yet after a sobering incident in which she briefly leaves her sleeping toddler in the car while meeting with a lawyer, Lavine resolves never to apologize for this again. “If there wasn’t room for my kids in this new journey I was embarking upon, where I was the president of a company that I founded and funded, I wasn’t going,” she writes.
Her epiphany reminds professionals at every level that although workplaces will always tilt sharply to one end of the work–family balance, there is no setting entirely free from the necessary demands of family, and the increasingly proper response is to acknowledge rather than scoff at them.
Mommy Millionaire, for all its timeless lessons, has a high degree of currency right now, as a reminder that for every single venture-backed, high-potential media darling, there are literally thousands of personal, homespun, low-tech enterprises like Lavine’s. For her and for countless others, the role of new technology is not to produce one high-flying media star like Google, but to lower the barriers to entry for other small companies like Lavine’s Green Daisy Inc. “I didn’t need to go out and create cold fusion or launch a billion-dollar technology IPO of a stock to be traded publicly to make a million dollars,” she says. “All I had to do was sell comfort and warmth to at least a very small percentage of 300 million tired and cold bodies who just wanted to come home from the daily grind, sit on the couch with their kids, and hold a warmed Wuvit to their chest or their necks while they watched TV.” Her ability to fuel her growth by tapping into new television channels such as QVC shows how new methods of distribution can boost the most low tech of products. Her chapter on the difficult but ultimately successful quest to break into the popular channel sparkles.