A Startup Turns Three: Reflections on Chasing Dreams, Company Culture, and Finding Balance
By Sarah Villafranco, MD
Posted in Blog, on April 19, 2015
Three years ago, on a Friday night, I kneeled in front of my two daughters, then ages 5 and 8. It was moments before the launch party for my new skincare company, Osmia Organics, and I was nearing basket-case status. My little one said: “Are you still gonna be a doctor, Mama?”
“Well, my love, not the kind of doctor I was in the ER. But, I am going to try to make people and animals and the planet happier and healthier by starting this company.”
Pause. “Oh. Okay. Well, you look pretty in that dress.”
I looked up at my husband, who smiled a gentle smile and nodded, and I knew I would make it through the evening.
* * *
Now, as the company turns three, things look a bit different than they did that night. Then, I was terrified that I was making a mistake by following a passion and leaving the practice of medicine. Now, I understand that the mistake would have been ignoring something that fully occupied my heart and soul. I had one employee when we launched. Today, we are a team of seven. We started with 1400 square feet, and had room to spare. We have since doubled that space, and are quickly filling it with workspace and inventory. Those days, we hovered over the computer, waiting anxiously for the ping of a new order, and I personally knew about 80 percent of the customers. Now, we are packing and shipping all day long, to a huge list of amazing customers who are no longer my blood relatives.
Looking back, I don’t think I knew what to expect when I left medicine to start a skin care brand, but I’m not sure I expected it to be as humbling, challenging, self-exploratory, and rewarding as it has been thus far. I knew it would be hard work, but didn’t know it would be harder in most ways than being a doctor. I knew there would be ups and downs, but I didn’t know how fully I would feel them. I knew I wanted to start and grow a business, but I didn’t know how much I would value creating meaningful work for wonderful people. With all the beautiful, botanical aromatics we use, I definitely knew it would smell better than the emergency room.
In some ways, having a ten-year career as an ER doc gave me a leg up as a new CEO. I handle pressure really well. I don’t melt down when there are a lot of balls in the air, and I am a strong decision maker. I tend not to freak out when problems arise, as I always carry in me the reference point of a “problem” in the ER, which could result in death. Here, problems just mean crappy sales or something that smells weird or a lost package – we’re all going to live and so are our customers.
But, my years in medicine have also made it tough to be a good CEO, as my definition of hard work was formed during those years. Almost nobody has the same standards, yet it’s what I know. I mean, we didn’t have a “lunch break” in the ER– the term still makes me smirk. When you did eat, you horked down stale graham crackers with one hand while you wrote charts with the other. As medical residents, we were limited to 80 hours per week, “unless continuity of patient care is negatively impacted, in which case the hours may be extended when necessary”. You guessed it - it was always necessary. The compensation came out to roughly $5-6 per hour: we all just stopped counting hours. We didn’t have paid vacation and you didn’t take a sick day unless you were literally too weak and dehydrated to stand. All of this was my only experience with “company culture”.
Then I added motherhood to the picture, which further distorted my idea of work. Now, I was on call EVERY night, nursing or pumping breast milk every four hours like a dairy cow, sleep deprived to the point where I’m not sure it was even safe to drive a car. I thought I had been working hard before, but with children, I scoffed at my pre-kid workload the way we scoffed at lunch breaks.
Don’t get me wrong: I loved those brutal years, despite the challenges, and I think they made me strong. My years in medicine (and motherhood) have, without question, prepared me to chase this fragrant dream and work the hours required to start a business and make it grow.
But, it is not the life I want for my staff, or, eventually, for myself. While I want to work with capable, driven people, I also want them to be happy humans. I need them to show up every day with a burning desire to be here, and give 110% to the job – 100% just isn’t enough to make a startup take flight. But, as a company, our strength will ultimately lie in actually living the healthy lifestyle we promote, and in embracing our own happiness while contributing to the growth of the business. I want my staff to have families and friends and time to meditate and hike and bake cookies. (Especially if they’re gluten-free cookies so I can eat them.) I want to go to my kids' games and plays and get home in time to read to them every night, and I want to support those priorities in my employees, as well. And, as much as I want this company to be amazing, I always try to remember that time is hurtling past, my babies are growing fast, and love is the main thing that needs to increase in the world for it to become a better place.
* * *
While I am still learning how to cultivate the right company culture, and how to put together a staff with the right mix of work, dedication, and fun, I have figured out a few things about being the boss. This list will continue to evolve, as will I, but here are some valuable lessons I have learned in my three years as CEO of a startup:
- The single most important thing is a great team, and the most important thing to look for in your team members is the energy they bring to the job. If someone is bringing negative energy or doing the job inattentively, call attention to it quickly. If it isn’t remedied, let that person move on and find a better fit. No matter what, don’t allow yourself to walk on eggshells in your own company – you’ve worked way too hard to let that happen.
- You get to be friendly and have fun with your employees. You don’t get to be their best friend. This one is still really hard for me. I love the people who work for me, and care for them deeply. But, sometimes you’ll have to wear your captain’s hat, and that’s a lot harder to do if you are BFFs with your staff.
- This company is your passion. Nobody will love it or invest sweat in it quite as much as you will, and that’s okay. Find the few who come closest to caring like you do, and be supremely grateful for them - they are helping you live your dream!
- You have to fail. A lot. Don’t mope and whine – it’s just part of the deal. Each failure will inform your position, and your next move, which will include brushing off the dirt and picking yourself up again with steely resolve and, preferably, a smile.
- If you’re in a relationship, you need a seriously supportive, understanding partner. This business is going to take up residence in your head and heart in a way that may feel threatening. While your goal is to strike a balance between work and family, the tough truth is that starting a company requires imbalance for a few years.
- You need to be able to do everything that makes the company run, from mopping the bathroom to shipping orders to marketing to financials (groan). But, once you know you can do it yourself, delegate as much as possible to your awesome crew, and focus on the things that only you can do.
- Care for yourself. Get exercise, eat well, and sleep. You'll remind your employees to do the same, and you'll make a stronger team for it.
- Pace yourself. Building a business is a brick-by-brick enterprise. If you attempt to build it too fast, or without the right foundation, it’s not going to be strong, and you’ll probably end up exhausted in a heap of rubble, wondering what exactly happened.
Got business-building tips of your own to share? I'm all ears!
With love and dreams from us to you,
Sarah and the Osmia Crew.