Our team is amazing; I wouldn’t trade any one of them for all of the experts in global health startups. Our team has faced two major hurdles, though: we are all volunteers, and we are scattered across the United States. How do you manage a team of individuals without a shared workplace? How do you keep full-time students and employees committed to a common cause? And how do you compile work from these far-flung individuals – work that not only blends cohesively, but also contributes to a life-saving product?
One of the most difficult challenges we have faced involves maintaining a high level of energy and momentum since our inception in September. Beginning something new and meaningful brings a rush of endorphins to all participants: setting up a website, recruiting new team members, planning data collection, and holding initial discussions on our long-term vision were all tasks we approached with relentless enthusiasm. A couple of months into the process, reality hit us: startups are hard. Really hard.
Mundane tasks took center stage. I never saw myself as an administrator, and yet here I was asking our volunteers for resumes and bios, filling out tax forms, and switching web hosts. As we moved from meaning to minutia, my team began to feel the magnitude of our undertaking for the first time. The scope of our ultimate goal became daunting and it really took a toll on our productivity. As our volunteers hit midterms and swapped jobs, deadlines became more like suggestions. What was going on here? It was a struggle to keep in touch with everyone, and I found myself relaying the same meeting minutes to three different people three different times. Our energy was fading and it was worrying me. We took some time off for the holidays in December and some team members went home to visit their families.
The team that returned to work in January was the complete opposite of the team I had known just two weeks prior. Everyone was more energized. Our meetings were buzzing with ideas and excitement. It was starting to feel like the old Dunia again.
When we pitched at an event for Houston startups in February, where we were the only nonprofit!, I saw a spark in the eyes of each team member every time they spoke to someone about Dunia for the first time. The break had given them the chance to talk about Dunia Health with new people and to rediscover, on their own, what we are actually trying to accomplish and why they decided to come on board as a volunteer.
It is difficult to maintain perspective when the challenges of a startup are too real and too many. Regular reminders of the “big picture” – of what happens at clinics on the ground, when the spread of easily preventable diseases is on the line – are essential for success. We made a mistake by letting ourselves get bogged down by the little things, but we’re quick learners, and growing pains are temporary. A supporter reminded us at a dinner recently that sometimes we have to lift our heads up, take a look around, and remember why we spend many sleepless nights doing what we are doing: because there is a child out there counting on us to get the job done.