Sunday, May 19, 2013

What startup entrepreneurs can learn from writer's workshops

One of my undergraduate majors at Stanford was Creative Writing.  This meant that I sat in many different writing workshops.  For those who haven't taken a creative writing course before, here are the basics:

1. The workshop consists of a small group (~12) of students.

2. Each class session focuses on workshopping one of the writers' work.

3. Prior to their workshop, the writer submits the story to the rest of the workshop.  Everyone reads the story in advance. (To give you some idea of how old I am, every time I workshopped a story, I had to print it out, take it to the copy center in the student union, and pay to have 12 copies made.  I then physically distributed my story the session before it was to be workshopped)

4. During the workshop, the writer reads the entire story aloud.  Then the class members discuss the story and offer their feedback.  In my experience, both processes are excruciating.  A story is a very personal thing, and it's hard not to feel defensive about your work.

5. At the end of the workshop, the rest of the class returns the paper copy you gave them, complete with their individual notes and feedback.

In the years since, I've come to realize that this is a great metaphor for entrepreneurship.  Your company is a very personal endeavor which you present to a whole bunch of strangers, who then give you blunt feedback.  The only part that's missing is the part where you then hand your notes on *their* stories to the VCs.

I've drawn three key lessons which I use in the startup world:

1) You have to develop a thick skin and stop taking criticism of your startup personally--it's simply part of the process.

2) You have to develop the judgment to know when to accept and when to reject suggestions.  It's far too common for entrepreneurs to lurch back and forth based on the latest feedback; the writing workshop concentrates all the feedback into one session, which means you have to exercise that judgment.

3) The workshop doesn't make or break your story; it's simply a tool to improve it.  The real work is done beforehand (as you write the story) and afterwards (as you rewrite it).  Similarly, pitching to investors is a means, not an end.  Fundraising is necessary but not sufficient.

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