How to describe what you're working on vs. who you are

This past week marked year 4 of the Creative Startups accelerator in Albuquerque. 

I went through the very first year of the program in 2014 with a local news startup, and although I'd already worked in and around startups (including a rapidly growing venture backed company in San Francisco), the experience provided a ton of knowledge about what it's like to build a business model in the early stages.

One thing that stuck with me: the toughest problem a founder faces in the early going mimics something we all face as individuals...what is your company? And who is it for? 

Whether you're growing / building / experimenting as a company or as an individual, that's a central question, more broadly phrased as: Who are you? And who are you for? 

It's a tough one to answer, and in mentoring + watching companies in the accelerator each year I've seen startup teams/founders regularly struggle to clarify their answers, particularly when boiling down their pitch deck and story. 

Often, the anxiety produced by trying to answer those questions stirs up imposter syndrome, and rather than trying to stamp that nervous energy out, I've learned that simply restructuring the language goes a long way. 

No matter who you are, "who are you?" is a nerve wracking question. It demands what feels like a binary answer (Good or Evil, Smart or Dumb, It Works vs. It Doesn't Work, etc.), when the truth is that contradiction and duality are everywhere in the universe. 

But describing what you're working on, anyone can do that...

  • We experimented with 500 users that we personally invited to try our travel rewards app, and based on their feedback we're now working with 2 informal partners to invite 3,000 of their customers to try it
  • I realized I didn't love project managing IT anymore, so I started taking classes in one of those code schools to learn Javascript and see if I'd like it
  • My co-founder and I opened an online shop in August of 2016 and have been experimenting with selling prints, t-shirts, and handmade items from local artists to Japan 

I've found that framing it that way helps answer "who am I" and "who are we," and set real milestones that you can actually measure over time, whether you're growing a company or simply growing as an individual.