Recently, a personal and business advisor asked me how things were going on the home front with my 1-year-old. A big smile spread across my face. Things couldn’t be better.
As a new father, there were certainly some nights I could have done with more sleep. Free time is a distant memory. But in a pure cost-benefit analysis, the joy that comes from parenthood has far outweighed any conceivable downside by a wide margin.
My advisor heard me out and with a knowing smile said, “Well, little people, little problems. Wait until she is in her mid-twenties.”
I have been thinking about that statement ever since.
Are the problems really smaller, or less meaningful, because she is younger? And what lessons does this wisdom hold for my company and other startups?
As I reflected on the statement and the idea it puts forth, I disagree. At best, I find the idea misguided. At worst, I find it condescending and too quick to dismiss the very real experiences of others.
Empathy (at any stage)
Start from the perspective of a baby, or even a child. As an adult, it is easy to look down and belittle any problems, concerns or difficulties the younger one is facing. Your daughter’s best friend just told her she was not going to be invited to her birthday party? Far from the world ending, child — that is small beer. Wait until you have real problems.
Not only does this show a complete lack of empathy, but it fails to acknowledge that the problem she just brought to you is real to her. In fact, from her perspective, that could have been the single worst day of her life.
As a parent, you might have lived 10,000 days or more. It is difficult in retrospect to label any single day as the “best” or the “worst.” As a small child, you may have only lived hundreds of days, maybe fewer. For a baby, even the bloating after a feeding could literally be the single worst moment of her life so far.
Sure, she will certainly have worse moments in the future, and will have many better moments as well, but does that somehow diminish the very real pain and distress she feels in that moment? I would argue no.
The same is true for startups. No startup plans on laying off tens of thousands of employees in a single year as some of the banks have had to do. Heck, most only have ten employees total.
Sure, no startup is being fined billions of dollars for misdeeds the Volkswagen emissions scandal that started in late 2015, when the United States Environmental Protection Agency issued a notice of violation of the Clean Air Act to the Volkswagen Group.
A startup would likely crumble under the weight of fines amounting to thousands of dollars if it came to it. But does that mean when a problem arises in an early-stage company, it is somehow less real or less meaningful simply because the scale is different? No. If anything, it is more real. It is more dangerous.
Credit Suisse can lay off 37,000 employees and still know it will exist as a company a year from now. Volkswagen Group may pay billions in fines and settlements, but in all likelihood it will still be one of the largest car companies in the world for years to come.
There are no ‘small’ problems
For a startup, “small” problems can truly mean the difference between the life or death of a business.
- That big contract from the new customer didn’t come through?
- Maybe you can’t make payroll this month?
- The USPTO just denied your patent? Now you have zero defensibility or business plan.
- That hypothesis you went all-in on when launching your new product? The assumptions were faulty and now you have all of your funds tied up to inventory no one wants to buy.
These problems may be minuscule in financial comparison to those suffered by Fortune 500 companies, but that hardly makes them little in the eyes and minds of those on the ground.
To me, it makes no sense to label a problem as big or small based on the size or age of the individual or company. If it is a problem, it’s a real problem. As an entrepreneur or a parent, it is your job to empathize and truly understand the problem.
Consider, how is it perceived by the person experiencing it and what you can do to help. Real people and real companies have real problems.
This article has been edited.
Andrew McConnell is the Co-Founder and CEO of Rented.com. Connect with @MAMcConnell on Twitter.