Keep All the Balls in the Air

How to Keep All the Balls in the Air, 22 years of running my Ed. Tech company, Robofun

Entrepreneurship

I started out life studying painting and sculpture at Skidmore College and, while there, managed to learn a bit about a computer language for children. After graduating, I spent 16 years as the Director of the Computer Programs at both The Buckley School and The Little Red Schoolhouse in Manhattan. While pregnant with my now 22-year-old, I idealistically and naively started my company. It has been a wild and wonderful ride. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned.

Find a way (or a place) to work where you are not interrupted and can think deeply about the challenges you are confronting. When you need to pivot, you’ll probably know that before the rest of your staff. 

Another female business owner once commented that running a business is a bit like breastfeeding 100 people at the same time. At times, it can feel like you are constantly pouring out ideas, directions and not leaving anything left for yourself. That doesn’t bode well for your ability to strategize and make good decisions. Having a quiet space, you can go to work can increase your ability to make good decisions. 

During hard times, we did a huge pivot; we took all of our classes in robotics, coding, animation, and Minecraft and brought them online. This was something I’d been trying to do for a few years but never could create the bandwidth for my staff or me. Having a pandemic gave us the space to make the pivot. And it worked! We’re now offering online classes for kids all over the world. Having time away from the office, away from distractions, made it clear how important this pivot was and gave me the energy and space to figure out how to implement it.

Treat your staff as you would like to be treated. 

Employees who feel recognized and appreciated enjoy their work more and are more productive. I want my staff to know how much I appreciate their hard work. I’ve made a point during the pandemic to talk to each employee regularly to see how they are managing their mental health during this difficult time. 

I feel for my staff to be acknowledged and treated well sets an example for how to treat our clients, students, and parents. It helps them feel pride in the work we’re doing to help kids love to learn using creative technology applications. 

Join or develop a group of other business owners that meet regularly.

There are many things that are not productive or appropriate to discuss with your staff. At times running a company is isolating. Having other business owners to consult with regularly has really helped me grow. At one point, my former cleaning service stole some equipment, refused to acknowledge this, and then dropped us before I could drop them. I emailed the members of my business group for ideas, and one member responded that she could send her cleaning staff up to help me that day if needed. That is a minor example, but it showed me the level of commitment we felt for one another. With big strategy decisions, to have a group that will allow you to present your financials, discuss the directions you’re considering and provide feedback is very helpful. 

Make sure you have ways to keep yourself healthy, and don’t overwork.

A few years ago, I spent a night under observation at the hospital after passing out at work, to discover stress was getting to me. It was a great wake up call. I don’t do my best work when I am pushing myself too hard, and I lose perspective and my love for my work. 

I often get the best ideas for my company when I am not officially working; I’m pursuing a hobby like hiking, or biking, or swimming. I come up with ideas, and I can’t wait to go into the office and discuss them with my staff. It takes a lot of discipline to work less, but I’ve finally learned that less work is better. I stay happier, more engaged, and more productive. 

Put your seatbelt on and drive carefully; you’ll be amazed at what you can build.

My father, who also ran a small business, once mentioned that the care and feeding of your banker were really important. As a teenager, I had no idea what he meant, but now I understand. The comment also applies to clients and support people such as your attorney and accountant. Communicate regularly with them. Acknowledge how their help has helped you grow. 

During the pandemic, my banker was amazing at helping me through the PPP process and finding other grants and loans to keep us viable when we had to close down in March. I had worked closely with her for over five years, and I believe that set the groundwork for her to be there when we really needed it. 

You can’t do everything well. 

It is hard to acknowledge this, but crucial for growth. Pick the things you do well and carefully select the people who will work with you who are good at the things you are not trained or motivated to do. Learning this lesson has helped me grow and sustain my work.