Don’t Start With Why – The Advice I am Glad I Stopped Taking


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It has been a year since we successfully completed our Kickstarter campaign. A year since we pitched Balyolu and won awards at two business plan competitions, and a year since we began venturing out into the field. And it recently dawned on me that this phrase, “a year,” means that Balyolu is almost officially past the big statistical survival hump.

Meeting with friends now, they pat me on the back and they say, “that first year was tough Cat, we didn’t think you’d do it, but yea, you actually made it. Like, that’s how I introduce you to people, the kid who actually said they were going to do something, and then went out and did it. I mean you did great things, and at great costs to yourself, but you survived, and now you’re back for more. So this means Balyolu is going to work.”

In many ways they are right. Over 70% of startup ventures die in their first year, so if you survive, and you survive fiercely, there is a good chance that you’ll make it. And now that we are drifting into the possible success zone, I have thought, what have I learned that can help others in my shoes? Do you have a seemingly impossible idea?  Do you want to make it work and you don’t know how? I can’t even pretend to have those answers, or to say for sure that Balyolu is going to be lucky enough to survive for one more year. But I can think of the buckets of recommendations that people have given me, and that there are three pieces of advice that I am glad I stopped living by.

1.) START WITH WHY – by Simon Sinek

For those of you who love TED Talks (me) and who work in social entrepreneurship (me again) Simon Sinek created a code of marketing and living for us – start with why. It was a genius approach that appeals completely to my way of thinking. “Appeal to people through their morals and ethics and dreams!” I have always thought. Simon argues that great companies like Apple build a brand that is not about what they do, it is about why. The classic example is that Apple does not build computers; they design products that will improve your lifestyle. And in this way, they can diversify to be so much more than a single WHAT that defines them.

This is a great concept. But after spending years compelling people with THE WHY, I don’t think it has helped me, and I don’t think it has helped many other social businesses and organizations in the sector.

It turns out that we operate in a world first and foremost dominated by WHATs. People’s attention spans are short, their time is shorter, and most of us start with what.

What do you do?

You should be able to answer that question clearly and concisely in a sentence. I couldn’t for over a year. Was Balyolu a travel company? Was it a development organization? What was our revenue model? What is that people are investing in and contributing to? Before Balyolu I worked in the social sector at a non-profit and I also remember then squirming at trying to explain WHAT it is that I did. Sure I could always tell you WHY. But THE WHAT was so vague and alienating to my audience that rarely did people walk away comfortably understanding this great thing I was so excited about.

It wasn’t until I sat down with a top CEO having clearly mapped out all of my WHYS and then scrambled for two hours to really show her the WHAT. She looked at me, she circled the blob of words underneath the what category and said “not being able to clearly articulate your what is the death of most social businesses.” We have won two business competitions in the audience favorite category, largely because we know how to use THE WHY. But we never won for our real business, because without an understandable WHAT, you don’t have a company. I took the next week to sculpt a serious WHAT and I have been a lot happier ever since.

2.) KEEP YOUR GOALS TO YOURSELF – Derek Silvers

Another Ted Talk. I remember I watched this one right as I was leaving my previous job and I was so nervous about telling a single one of my friends what I wanted to do next. In his talk, Silvers discusses a social reality in which we feel such a satisfaction from announcing our goals, that whether or not we have done them, that satisfaction will keep us from completing them, and therefore we have a better chance at success if we delay the instant gratification we might get by telling people what we are about to do.

It is a convoluted theory with a few tests to prove the results. Maybe it works for dieting, but I think if you are a driven entrepreneur and you have what it takes to be successful, the only thing not sharing your idea will do is hold you back. I have presented about Balyolu more times and to more people than I ever care to imagine. It has been a frustrating line of meetings, where I sit for two hours explaining my story, and at the end, we stand up, the person thanks me for my time, and says, “You should really write a book, that was beautiful.” I often feel like I am pitching a novel deal, much more than a great idea. It is very hard to know when that person who is listening will tell you, “you are a powerful character in that story, and I want to invest in you.” Or if they will be that friend who listened to your story and decided “I am going to up and move to Turkey to help you with this,” or be that stranger who heard and became the mentor who Skypes you at 5 am to walk through your applications. You will never ever know who those people are if you hold back. Don’t hold back.

3) POSTPONE IF YOU ARE NOT 100% READY – name withheld out of respect.

This one came to me in email form from a top tourism professional in Turkey. He highlighted it in yellow, bold, and all caps saying this:

“FINAL NOTE: POSTPONE IF YOU ARE NOT 100% READY
SO MANY GREAT IDEAS FAILED BECAUSE THEY WERE NOT READY AND WERE NEVER RETRIED FOLLOWING A FAILED TRIP.”

What a message! These words still haunt me from time to time. What if I fail? What if something goes wrong? If I’ve learned anything from my first year, it is that we do fail, and many things go wrong all of the time! But there is absolutely no way to ever grow or learn or know how to predict what would be a better way without getting out there and doing it. And I am adding this in from the comments below, but even more so, that a fear of failure also implies that a person wouldn’t try again is a major pitfall. If every time we failed at something meant that we stopped there, not a single one of us would be able to walk, or speak, or achieve anything at all.

So after telling you what words of wisdom I am glad I stopped following, my parting advice that you too can completely disregard is “hear what everyone has to say, listen to a trusted few, and let your own experiences be your guide.”

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About Cat

Catherine de Medici Jaffee is a National Geographic Young Explorer, a Fulbright Scholar, a Luce Fellow, the Founder of Balyolu: the Honey Road, and a lunatic about honey culture in the Caucasus. Raised on a farm in the Colorado Rockies, Cat grew up loving animals, dirt, and altitude. Her dedication and passion for animals, agriculture, and women leaders has launched her across the world as a Luce and Fulbright scholar: to raise Aigamo ducks in Japan, to research yak trade caravans in Sikkim, and to study rural women’s migration in Turkey. In particular, Turkey - with its fish hung like laundry from windows, its 9,000 species of flowers, and its delicious honey - continues to lure Cat back to its borders. Cat’s love for Turkey, the mountains, agriculture, and women’s leadership blend together sweetly in her new venture Balyolu and her blog Inspired Beeing. You can most frequently find her jumping on a mountain, running from angry bees, cooking in villages, hitching on dirt roads, or joking with Turkcell about her internet woes. Cat is joined by her partner in crime Claire Bangser, artist, photographer, writer, and globe wanderer who believes in creative storytelling as a way to powerfully connect people across mental and physical borders. From working with small-scale women farmers in Mali, to documenting peoples' lives along a 2,000 mile bike tour in the US, she finds that every person (and bee) has an important story to tell and much wisdom to share (speaking of Wisdom, Claire just published her first book, Ride Somewhere Far. Check it out on our Link Roll). These days, you're most likely to find Claire upside down, yodeling from a mountaintop, making tragic mistakes in Turkish, or eating meat for Cat.

Posted on March 9, 2013, in Bees Keep People and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Whoever told you that quote about “postpone if you are not 100% ready” might need to read it again. The quote does not say that great ideas fail because they are not ready, it says great ideas fail because they are not retried.

    In other news… that American friend who proposes walking across Iran with no research must be crazy! Something like that probably takes 2-3 years of research, the Iran aspect of it being only one of many pieces. If I were to undertake a project like that, I would walk across another country first, simply to research the operational aspects of walking across a country.

    • Yes Matt, I think one would need to walk across a neighboring country first to get a good idea ;) and then get the right permits…

  2. Another great post Cat! Congrats on the almost 1-year anniversary of Balyolu! Making mistakes sometimes is half the fun and definitely part of learning. I’ve had baking recipes fail, but I still keep trying until I get the perfect cake/tart, etc. Keep up the good work! Cheers!

  3. I loved this. So many times I listen to people without looking to see where they are in life. This is a good reminder to trust myself!!

  4. what I remember is that every time there is a decision to be made, we make the one that makes the most sense at the time. It’s good to look back and also to know that new decisions are happening now, every minute. Sending you lots of support for year 2!! keep writing when you can.

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