I sat cross-legged on the floor with a dozen 3rd-graders last week to answer questions about the businesses they were building for an upcoming school startup fair. These kids didn’t have any reason to be gentle with my ego, and they asked some of the hardest-hitting questions I’ve heard.
After we problem-solved about how to get their kindergarten-aged potential customers to wait in line (entertain them!) and how to calculate your costs (they totally get fixed and variable costs!) one of them dropped a bomb.
“How do we keep our business from falling apart?"
She reached out her hand, almost instinctively it seemed, to her friend and co-founder seated beside her on the alphabet carpet.
Out of the mouths of babes.
Their teacher mentioned that one group had already split up over “creative differences,” so I took a deep breath, and we talked about failure.
We talked about how business, like the world around us, has seasons, some of which are hard or impossible to weather. We talked about how little control founders have sometimes, and that sometimes we only walk away with pride in hard work and smart decisions. And sometimes, not even that.
But most importantly, we talked about being good to people. We focused on empathy, that sometimes-elusive ability to think outside ourselves and feel what others feel. I described the ways that goodness manifests itself in business, like having the hard conversation about conflicting ideas before everyone wants to throw a hissy.
These kids rattled off a list of ways to demonstrate empathy, surprising me and their teacher. One said she’d remember that other people get scared of looking stupid in front of others and remind her business partner that she knows how uncomfortable that can be. Another reminded his classmates that some people need time alone to think, while others like to talk problems out. A third brought up wanting to make her family proud, and the pressure that expectations can exert in tough business decisions.
They were able to dig into the sticky, dark elements of messing up big-time and articulate tactical ways to be good to their co-founders because they set themselves up for empathic responses.
Sound like the last tough conversation in your startup? If not, then why? What do 3rd-graders know that we’ve forgotten?