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  • Writer's pictureVanessa Lane

Year-end Reflections from a Start-up Founder

Over the past year, my co-founder (Michael Sapiro) and I took the leap to start our own company. Nothing in my professional career has inspired more growth and stretching than building a company. Because of the mental and emotional journey we’ve been on, I’ve become pensive as I reflect on the last year and wanted to highlight a few key takeaways.

The Everyday Highs and Lows

When Michael and I incorporated BetterPlay Studios nearly a year ago, we knew that the journey would be difficult. As first-time founders, we had heard a mixture of horror stories about start-up failures as well as wild success stories and everything in between. Never having gone through it ourselves, we’ve learned that most days we can find reasons to be on top of the world or in the lowest pit on the planet. 

While it hasn’t always been easy to navigate, I’m proud to say that we’re learning to manage our emotions and expectations when it comes to our work as founders. Whether it’s pitch deck feedback, a meeting that didn’t go the way we had hoped, or even something positive like an introduction to a value-adding potential partner, we’re learning to learn from the bad, enjoy the good, and be better tomorrow than we were today. Over time, we’ve embraced our emotions, but we’re learning not to be controlled by them.

Avoiding “Shiny Object Syndrome”

In addition to persevering through the joys and struggles of everyday start-up life, we’ve learned to balance executing our business strategy while remaining open-minded to what’s happening around us. I’ve already implied this, but as new founders, we’ve had the opportunity to engage with so many interesting, experienced people across a multitude of industries. It can be tempting to incorporate everyone’s feedback or ideas into our business plan, but the reality is that doing so would take our focus away from our goals. 

At the same time, we’ve learned to recognize when we should implement the feedback we hear. One of the most crystal clear examples of this was when we participated in the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program. We had the opportunity to perform customer discovery interviews on nearly 50 people in mental health professions or in adjacent fields. The purpose of this exercise was not to get feedback about a specific product, but rather to gain insight into the pain points this target audience experiences. Candidly, we were surprised by some of the feedback and were able to leverage these lessons as we brainstormed for one of our product lines. 

Caucasian woman with brown hair on the left grins as she takes a selfie that includes her co-founder on the right. He has curly, light brown hair, glasses, and a beard. He is smiling as well. The room behind them is full of people mingling at a cocktail party.
Vanessa (left) and Michael (right) sharing a prototype of The Out Dwellers at Beyond the Blues in Milwaukee, WI.

Prioritizing Community

One of the biggest takeaways I learned this year was how important finding community is for founders. This isn’t something I expected, mainly because I felt that I had a solid community around me before diving headfirst into life as a founder. However, it quickly became clear that I needed to find a supportive network of founders who understood the unique challenges of product development, raising capital, and navigating the nuances of small business grants, for example. 

I jokingly say that when you’re launching a start-up, you need people to support you as you make tough decisions like turning down a funding source that is good now, but will cause you to suffer later, and to tell you that getting that Crunchwrap at 11pm is a bad idea. For me, this happened by joining the Michigan Founders Fund and getting connected at Bamboo Detroit. These are two organizations that have helped foster community, connections, and resources for the start-up community. They’ve specifically helped me feel more confident as I take on new challenges in my role as a co-founder. Additionally, as a member of the community, I am encouraged to make connections or share my experience with others. With the concept of community at the center of entrepreneurship, it’s much easier to realize a more supportive, sustainable start-up ecosystem here in Michigan (and beyond). 

We’ve had the chance to support the good work of other communities as well. We attended The Charles E. Kubly Foundation’s Beyond the Blues event, raising awareness for depression and mental health support. After that, we were invited to share about what we’re doing with a group of occupational therapists taking a course in adaptive game design. Receiving support from diverse communities has been so encouraging and helpful in reconnecting us to our why.

A Taco Bell Cantina location in Times Square, New York. The logo is sparkling, diamond-like text.
Taco Bell in Times Square. I wasn't kidding when I said I need to be talked out of T-Bell, even in NYC.

“You’re basically a houseplant.”

This is something I heard one of my midwives say after my son, Jude, was born. Her point was that each day, you need a little sun, water, and structural support. I think I use this advice more now than when I was figuring out what Jude’s high-pitched wails meant. When I’m dealing with a specific challenge or the third night in a row of late-night meetings, I try to get outside (even in winter), stay hydrated, and check in with a mentor for support. None of these things solve my immediate problem, but they help me approach the problem in a healthier way.

An often overlooked part of this metaphor is the structural support. We have some really great mentors at BetterPlay, and we’ve leaned on their experience and expertise during this time as the venture capital ecosystem has been stressful for founders. Talking to our more experienced mentors has helped us to be more strategic and sustainability-minded as we continue to press on toward meeting milestones. Emotionally, we’re getting front row seats to how market cycles work and gaining a better understanding of the cause and effect of the marketplace. Left unchecked, the related stress would have been an unnecessary distraction. Instead, we leveraged the support of our community and mentors to speak from experience instead of from a place of fear. 

This past year has been incredible in so many ways, and we’re thankful for each of you who has followed us, asked how business is going, encouraged us, prayed for us, thought about us, and made connections for us. It means more than you might realize. As we look to 2024, we do so with clear minds, big, but realistic expectations, and a relentless sense of hope.

Be sure to follow along on our journey via LinkedIn and X (formerly Twitter), and sign up for our newsletters. 

We wish all of you a happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year!


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