Turning Points

The end of Wildfire week 3 felt like a turning point in the program.

A much needed turning point.

After the feedback from week 2, I was beginning to feel like the program was headed for disaster. Some teams felt stuck in neutral, gripes about long days were mounting, and I was even questioning my own leadership abilities and the overall program design. Despite flexing my empathetic muscles as discussed in the last post, my head was still hanging low. Pitch practice on Friday did not go the way I had hoped. Many teams were unprepared, and some didn’t understand why they had to listen to every other team’s pitch. But something clicked over the weekend. Hope sprung anew.

Right before all team check-in on Monday morning of week 4, one of the teams approached me and asked if they could host a barbecue for everyone at their apartment complex. This was exciting—this was the cohort camaraderie that I had imagined from the get go. I had always hoped that if the teams spent more free time together, it would naturally promote the collaboration, group learning and cross-team problem solving that is so crucial to a startup’s success at real-world accelerators.

And then, during all team check-in, for the first time ever, teams offered advice and suggestions to one another instead of the usual passive listening. This is what I had waited for! Maybe it helped that I broke the ice that morning by sharing my personal high and low of the previous week—my wife and I took our two-and-a-half year old triplets to my mom’s place in Northern Michigan. On the journey north, we endured a dozen plus vomits as our kids ejected their breakfast—the low. But when we finally arrived to my mom’s place, and when we weren’t shagging our kids who had an uncanny ability to overwhelm our zone defense and run in three different directions, we did manage to enjoy the tranquility of the lake and quality family time—the high.

The week only got better from there. On Wednesday, a group of us went outside and played pickup basketball. I talked plenty of smack which I invariably failed to back up—as of this writing, I have still been unable to hit the bottom of the net unless you count airballs.

At Family Dinner that night, we heard from Donovan Morrison and Matt Wilcox, the founders of Luna Lights and two recent graduates of Northwestern. Their advice about forsaking two years at an entry level job versus taking a chance on their startup resonated with the group and painted a picture of the path ahead for our group of budding entrepreneurs.

By the start of week 4, I noticed a new pep in the step of many teams, a renewed focus and determination. Several students even expressed to me their gratitude for making them endure some of the workshops, especially the one on Entrepreneurial Character, where we used “having difficult conversations” as the theme for resolving team and founder issues. Melissa was out of the office on Monday and Tuesday, and even she noticed the change upon her return. Discouragement turned to hope. Frowns turned to smiles. And we all rolled up our sleeves and got to work. Nobody said this stuff was easy. Mix in a little vulnerability, some humor, some laughs on the basketball court, and it can actually be fun.