156. Becoming a father taught me something incredibly valuable about being an entrepreneur
I’ve just become a father.
My wife isn’t the mother and it wasn’t planned, so it’s a bit of a rainbow family affair. There’s full support all round, and I am lucky to have two women in my life who manage to deal with the complexity of the situation.
This means that there is a baby now, and that has sparked some thoughts.
My daughter, Saga, was born about three weeks ago, and she is a wonderful little beast. I’m pretty sure all children are. She’s also made me think. Again, nothing remarkable there. But what I hadn’t counted on, was that her birth and the first couple of weeks of her existence would teach me a valuable lesson about my business. It’s about being uncomfortable and incompetent.
It’s about pain and growth.
And most of all, it’s about being outside your comfort zone.
I’ve been an entrepreneur for more than fifteen years. I’ve been a father for less than three weeks. But while I could (theoretically!) decide to sell my share in the company and start working a “normal” job, quitting on fatherhood isn’t exactly an option.
That means that I currently face many, many years of being outside of my comfort zone — of not having a clue and having to step up to the plate anyway. Because as anyone who has kids can (and will) tell you, you don’t know what you’re getting into. Ironically, this is just as true for starting a business, just in a very different way.
My company, Dziobak Larp Studios/Rollespilsakademiet, is twelve years old. For the first three years as a professional larper, I’d done odd jobs here and there, working through organisations or as a freelancer. When my brother Peter and I started the company in 2006 I knew nothing of running a business. I’d once had a conversation with my older friend Mikkel about entrepreneurial spirit, and he’d said that it was hard to describe and either you had it or you didn’t. I’d then concluded that I probably didn’t.
I was wrong. Oh, how I was wrong.
But in January 2006, when Peter and I launched Kassidi (which would become Rollespilsakademiet and Dziobak Larp Studios later on), I had zero clue as to what I was getting into. Luckily for me, Peter handled all the business stuff. I just had to deliver in the field, and I had plenty of experience there. I’d already done a ton of larp events, had lecturing experience, a couple of books to my name and was a recognised expert in my field. But when it came to running a company, I knew nothing.
For the first year, I didn’t have to know. Peter took care of his side and I took care of mine, and while we weren’t swimming in money, we managed to bring in about 40,000€ that first year. Half of that was enough to support me, but not Peter, who had higher costs of living, so we split up in December 2016.
Suddenly I was all alone with a company I had no clue on how to run. I didn’t know squat about taxes, payroll, VAT, regulations, contracts or the like. I knew how to market volunteer larp events to the volunteer larp community, but didn’t know a thing about B2B sales, despite that being in B2B. I knew how to run an organisation and I knew how to lead people, but as an entrepreneur I was woefully out of my depth.
For the first six months, I did jobs for clients, but I didn’t send out any invoices. I didn’t know how, and it seemed daunting to learn. I tried to get Peter to teach me, but when I’d ask him for assistance, he’d say “It’s super easy. Just do this, this and this” and it would seem so reasonable, yet afterwards I’d sit there and look at the screen and think “I’m lost”.
The reason I learned how to send an invoice was that I ran out of money. It took me that before I pulled myself together and figured out how. Looking back, it seems incredible that I was so bloody useless and afraid of learning even the simplest of things business wise. What was even more idiotic was that I didn’t find myself a mentor who could have helped me through this, but decided to go it alone and fail miserably along the way.
But in the end, I faced the pain and learned.
I learned how VAT works, how to do bookkeeping and how to do contracts. I learned how to design websites that were ok looking and how to edit video. I learned how to work with autist kids and disabled kids, and I learned how to hire and fire. I learned how to negotiate and how to do marketing. I learned and learned and learned, and looking back it seems so simple, but when going through it, it wasn’t. In 2008, I’d even learned enough that I got a partner onboard, as I sold 50% of the company to my friend Anders.
And, oh boy, have we learned since. We’ve learned how to hire employees and how to fire them (which is much harder, in my book). We’ve learned how to deal with big customers and how to let go of the small ones. We’ve learned how to delegate and how to do strategy. We’ve faced conflicts and disasters and successes. We’ve faced pain and growth and triumph of sorrow, and today we run a company with almost 50 employees and offices in three countries. We’ve gone from being a small Danish company to being a global powerhouse within our small industry and we work with partners I’d never have dared to dream of back when it all started.
And every time we’ve grown, it’s been painful.
Every time we venture into new territory, it means that I need to learn something new. Four years ago, I had no clue how to run a company with people spread out in different countries. Three years ago I had to learn how to deal with global media attention. A year ago I knew squat about investors or venture capital.
Three weeks ago I knew nothing of how to be a father.
This isn’t one of those “Oh, you know nothing, because you’re not a parent.” texts. I’ve always hated those, and being in a position where I could write one hasn’t changed that.
But here’s the thing about children. There’s built-in growth, which means that once you’ve mastered a certain situation, the situation changes. Figured out how to be a parent to a newborn? Well, too bad, because now the baby is one years old and there’s a whole new set of challenges. Learn how to deal with that? That’s great, but now she’s hitting the Terrible Twos and is contrarian and talks and walks. You made it past that hurdle and think you now know what you’re doing? Ha! Your child is now starting in kindergarten and the game is changed completely.
When I learned how to give a lecture on the nature of larp to pedagogues back in 2004, it was terrifying. The first time I stood in front of eighty of them, I was twenty five years old, and they’d paid a solid amount of moment to hear me speak. I had my name on the cover of a book about larp and I had told the world I knew what I was doing. But the first time I did it, it was scary anyway. What if my confidence was misplaced? What if I failed, and they thought I was an idiot? What if they wanted their money back?
It went great, and I still remember that day, but even more importantly, after that, I knew how to do it. Today, I’ve done hundreds of lectures and can talk about a vast variety of subjects with confidence, but larp is still one of my specialities. I can get up on a stage and redo that lecture from 2004 in front of any audience and I know that it will go smoothly. Because while the world has changed, I’ve nailed that skill and as long as I don’t become rusty, I can rest assured that I know what I’m doing.
With a child? Hell, no.
Because it’s a human being that starts out incredibly small and keeps on growing and changing, it doesn’t matter that you mastered the previous skill because now it’s a whole new ball game. Who cares if you can change a diaper or calm a crying infant, when you’re now faced with a seven year old who comes home from school crying because she’s been bullied or is fourteen and is dealing with her first major heartbreak? What does it help that you once were the best dad in the world who had Bedtime Story Reading at level 99, when your child has lost her apartment and is asking you for advice on whether to let her dream of becoming a spoken word artist die because it’s too hard to make ends meet?
I’m not there yet, but I know that one day I will be facing these challenges or others like them. Saga is right now a small, cute creature with a tendency towards eating, sleeping, screaming and runny noses, who fits comfortably in the crook of my arm. That won’t last, though, and I know that every skill I master along the way will be obsolete before long.
The only thing that’s certain is that every time she enters a new stage of life, it will mean that I once again enter a period of not knowing what I’m doing and being painfully incompetent. It’s part of being a parent, and I try to approach it with a Pippi Longstockings attitude of “I don’t know anything about that. I’m sure I’ll be good at it”, even though I’m of course also scared shitless.
And this is where I want to circle back to business, and about being uncomfortable. Because if you want your business to survive and grow and learn, you need to get outside your comfort zone. Whether it’s learning about sales funnels, EU tax law or cash flow management, you will face situations where you haven’t got a clue. Going from one to two people was big thing, and going from two to three was wild as well. From there to five was a challenge and from five to fifteen was a wild experience. I’ve learned some hard lessons about myself as our company has grown, and I continue to do so.
Being an entrepreneur can be a magical and amazing journey, but it can also be filled with pain and hardship, and for most it is. The term life-long learners is popular these days, but learning requires a period of incompetence and that can be painful. Innovation means challenging the status quo and whether you battle nay-sayers, bad numbers or a world that doesn’t care, if you decide to go the way of the entrepreneur, I guarantee you that there’ll be pain.
I’ve always been good at picking up new skills. I’ve been less afraid than most of saying “What’s this? Could I learn how to do it?” and then taking the first step. Yet, I still spent six months not knowing how to send an invoice. I still haven’t run a facebook ad campaign or figured out exactly how double taxation works. I know Squarespace is easy to use, but haven’t tried it myself.
But becoming a father made me realise that I need to get better at being uncomfortable again. I need to keep honing the skills I have and levelling up my expertise, but I also need to go into the new and the unknown. I need to learn about Japanese business culture if we’re to expand there. I need to understand instagram if I’m to get my personal profile up to snuff. I need to master the art of letting go and trusting my project leaders. And I need to tell myself that I don’t know what challenges we’ll face in five years, let alone how to overcome them.
I need to remember the words of Ulrik Mark Haislund, a world-class entrepreneur who’s in the building business on a billion-dollar deal level. We were talking about selling, and he had a piece of controversial advice, that resonated with me.
“If you want your business to be innovative as hell, one way is to have a sales team that the rest of the organisation hates. If you are constantly selling more than you can deliver, you need to innovate to fulfill your promises. It’s not going to be pleasant, but it’s damn effective. As humans, we grow soft when we don’t challenge ourselves, but if you want to build a really strong business you need to do that. When John F Kennedy said the Americans would put a man on the moon within the decade, he was promising something he didn’t know how to deliver. Innovation is like that. You don’t grow if you don’t have to.”
First, I didn’t get it, and I resisted the idea. But then I looked back and saw all the times when I’d been in that situation — of having to deliver on a promise that I wasn’t sure on. Either because it had been made by me (“Of course, we know how to run events for 3,000 people!”) or because circumstances had changed (“We just lost 24 sleeping spots at the venue? But we’ve sold the tickets already, so we need to think of something.”). I looked at all the times when I’d been forced to innovate and adapt in order to deliver. Yes, it was uncomfortable and yes, it was hard. But it also made us grow and learn.
I — and we as an organisation — can’t afford to become complacent and grow lazy. We need to remember the times that were crazy and hard and instead of trying to shy away from those, we need to strive for them. We need to get better at being uncomfortable instead of trying to become comfortable. We need to experiment and test and fail and learn, and try and try again. We need to understand that even though businesses aren’t like children, the world of today isn’t suited for people who believe the status quo will last.
Jesper Toft, who I work with at the Danish Center for Leadership, says it quite well.
“The new CEO mindset means that you can’t focus on either your core business or on innovation, but have to both at the same time. A great CEO today needs to approach every situation with calm curiosity, and see opportunities where others see disaster. If someone says that sales are down 30% for the last month, the new CEO has to look at that information and say “How interesting. What can we do with this situation?” instead of automatically assuming that something has gone wrong and someone is to blame. The world is in flux and the leaders of tomorrow need to be comfortable outside their comfort zone.”
I’m not there yet, but I’m trying. And Saga’s birth and the prospect of being a father for (hopefully!) the rest of my life means that I will have at least one area where I will be constantly outside my comfort zone. And if I can accept that fact as a parent, I can hopefully accept it as a business owner as well.
Being an entrepreneur in today’s world means being uncomfortable and being comfortable with that.
Thank you for reading.