Mamie Kanfer Stewart is CEO and founder of Meeteor, a software and consulting firm that enables better meetings. Mamie is driven to help others optimize their time and cultivate their team to achieve results. Follow her on LinkedIn.
Who is your hero? (In business, life, or both.)
David Allen, inventor of the “Getting Things Done” method, is my hero. After reading his book and applying some of the techniques he promotes, my stress levels went down, I got more done, and most importantly, I was able to spend more quality time with my family. In some small way, I feel like he saved me from a life of unending work, unhealthy stress, and constant worry about dropping the ball.
What’s the single best piece of business advice (unorthodox tips welcome!) that helped shape who you are as an entrepreneur today, and why?
Lead from behind like a penguin.
It’s easy as an entrepreneur to lead from the front — to be visible, make all the (big) decisions, show strength amongst all the uncertainty. But to build a healthy culture and sustainable business, leading from behind can be much more powerful. Listen to and learn from everyone — customers, colleagues, experts and novices. Admit when you don’t know something or when you’re wrong, show gratitude and give credit to others. Build a team of people who are smarter in their domains than you are, but step in and be decisive when you need to be.
To lead from behind means to spend as much thought on building a healthy internal culture and organizational capacity as you do about making your customer happy. This doesn’t mean trying to make your staff happy. It does mean empowering them to make decisions without you, providing them with the information, tools, and resources they need to do their best work, and demonstrating that you value and trust them. When you lead from behind, the first thing you see is your team, and beyond that is the rest of the world.
What’s the biggest mistake you ever made in your business, and what did you learn from it that others can learn from too?
I spent about a year building a product in search of a market. I knew the problem existed based on my previous work as a management consultant, but I significantly underestimated how aware others were of this problem and whether they would value a solution. So I spent quite a while explaining the problem to potential customers while also trying to convince them that my product was the solution. Even those who were early adopters ultimately didn’t find the value to be worth the effort.
What I learned is that some products can truly solve problems but that is not enough to make them saleable. It is essential to start with the customer’s needs and understand the complexity of behavior surrounding their problem. Work closely with your customers to learn from them and never assume that just because it works, you’ll be able to sell it.
What do you do during the first hour of your business day and why?
I listen to a podcast on my commute, which gets my brain going. A few that I’m particularly excited about now are “How I Built This,” “RocketShip,” NPR Politics, and “Reply All.” Then once I’m at my desk, I check in on email, go over my calendar for the day and week, and review my prioritized task list. I want to be sure I don’t miss anything critical and that I focus on getting the most important and timely work done so I’m not rushing at the last minute.
What’s your best financial/cash-flow related tip for entrepreneurs just getting started?
You’d be surprised how much you can live without as a business. Don’t pay for anything until you absolutely have to, especially for software. There are many great products that offer a free version, which will be enough to get you started. Although the free version might not include all the functionality you’d like, you can do some things manually or use creative ways to make it work while conserving cash. This will also help you recognize what you really need and when it’s time to invest in tools that support your workflow and business.
Quick: What’s ONE thing you recommend ALL aspiring or current entrepreneurs do right now to take their biz to the next level?
Read The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. No matter where your business is on the journey from idea to re-invention, the principles and actions Eric lays out will help you move your business to the next level.
What’s your definition of success? How will you know when you’ve finally “succeeded” in your business?
There are lots of milestones along the business journey that tell me I’ve succeeded and many more I’ve yet to hit. I don’t know that I’ll ever have that “ah, finally it’s a success!” moment because the goalposts keep moving. A profitable business one day can still close the next, so is that a success? As long as my business is operating and I’m having a little fun, making customers happy, delivering value, enjoying collaborating with my team, and earning enough money to continue to do it the next day, I’ll tell myself that it’s a success.
But all that being said, I do very much look forward to the day when we finally become profitable.