Sometimes you don’t need “an idea.” You just need to know who you are.
Margo Aaron knew that if she was going to build a business, she needed to find people who were doing similar things. There was just one problem: she didn’t know who those people actually were.
“It was like there were these tribes. The developers had a tribe. And the digital nomads had a tribe. And Women in Tech had a tribe. And, I mean technically Iam one? But I’m not. I’m not a tech person,” she remembers.
What Margo was experiencing was something every entrepreneur encounters at some point or another: Before you can know who your people are, you need to know who you are.
It sounds like a “froofy” thing to say – that we all need to go on entrepreneurial “spirit quests” and “find ourselves.” But it’s true. Until you have that self-knowledge — until you know what you value, and what you’re building a business for — not only will you not know the kind of people you need to surround yourself with to make it happen, you won’t know the kind of business you should be building in the first place.
Case in point: Margo herself. Before she really clarified who she was as an entrepreneur and what she was trying to accomplish with her business, she was running a marketing agency — a business which, in her own words, she “hated.”
Now, she runs The Arena: an online community dedicated to helping other entrepreneurs find what she herself had been lacking: a community of like-minded people who cared about the same things she cared about, were trying to figure out the same things she was trying to figure out, and were working through it together.
And all of it came out of a gradual process of Margo figuring out who she is as an entrepreneur.
“You have to know who you are to know who your people are,” Margo said. “You have to be brave enough to say, ‘This is not for me. And this is for me.’”
“This is for me”
Finding the people whose vision of entrepreneurship matched hers was a process for Margo. “It took me a while to finally find people who were building businesses, and the type of businesses that I wanted to build.”
One thing that helped: putting herself in as many situations as possible that would give her an opportunity to test herself against other people and see how their ideas compared with hers. “I met with everyone and anyone who would sit down with me. I went to every Meetup. I went to every conference. I did everything.”
Through that process, she started to get clarity about what resonated with her — and what didn’t. “You get data back. You judge, ‘How do I feel when I’m around these people, and talking about these things?’”
Two specific things Margo realized were on her priority list: family and time. And with those priorities in mind, she discovered there were whole categories of business advice that didn’t apply.
“Some of the people I would talk to would say things like, ‘Oh yeah, I want to go off to Bali for a month and not communicate with anyone,’ and I just thought, ‘But I don’t want that. I like my mom! I would like to talk to her!’”
Or there were what Margo calls the “ex-corporate consulting types.” “They were very focused on whatever could make you money, without any thought to what I actually wanted to do or what would be the best use of my skills, or how I value my time. It sounds weird when I say, ‘I don’t care about money,’ and I’m an entrepreneur. But it’s true.”
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If it’s not important, let it go
This brings us to the second side of this “entrepreneurial self-discovery” coin: the things that aren’t important to you.
In Margo’s case, money was one. Another: brunch — and everything brunch stood for.
“That was a huge thing, not going to brunch. I wanted to work. I liked what I did. I liked reading in the morning. I wanted to have a leisure morning. I wanted to write. I wanted to work on my business. It was extra time for me to catch up …. And telling people, ‘This is what I do on a Sunday,’ that was huge.”
Saying “no” to three-hour Sunday brunches may sound like a small thing, but it actually touches on something huge that too many entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs don’t get: your time is finite. Making time for the things you decide matter — like starting your business — means eliminating some of the things that don’t. Like keeping up with every single show in your Netflix queue, or being the last one standing in a round of Fortnite.
There are only 24 hours in a day. Take out sleep and family and fitness, and the time that you have left for the things you care about is already dwindling away. And if one of the things you care about is building a business from scratch, you have to get aggressive about protecting your time. Even if it means giving up breakfast burritos and bottomless mimosas.
Keep first things first
We tend to think of starting a business as this linear process: First I decide I want to start a business. Then I find my idea. Then I build it. THEN maybe I start thinking about finding people who are doing the same thing.
But the reality is much messier — and much more iterative — than that. The people you meet inform your idea of what’s possible in your business. The kind of business you decide you want to build informs the kind of people you want to spend time around. Margo had to know she wanted to start a business before she could start finding people who were doing the same thing. But she had to put herself around people in order to gain clarity about the kind of business that she wanted to build.
And there’s this huge, existential question sitting in the middle of all of it that nobody seems to want to talk about, but is actually the heart of the whole thing: why do you want to start a business in the first place?
So now we want to ask you: How do you answer these questions? What are you optimizing for? Is it free time on the weekends? Is it stability for your family? Is it money? (It’s okay if it is!) What do you need to let go of in order to make room for what actually matters?
The answers themselves aren’t what’s important here. We’re not trying to make windows into your souls. What IS important: that you are clear about what your answers are. Because once you get that clarity, you can move on to the next questions:
What kind of business do you need to build to support that?
What kind of people do you need to surround yourself with in order to make it happen?