Sofia Fenichell | Founder & CEO | Mrs Wordsmith

Balancing the Needs of Business

I am mumpreneur. I am very proud of this title. It evokes an image of a frazzled yet sincere, middle-aged woman effortlessly juggling the needs and expectations of loved ones, with running a business.

In reality, it is very different, especially the ‘effortlessly’ part.

Over the past 4 years I have been in over 100 classrooms teaching Mrs. Wordsmith or just observing how students learn. I have had the pleasure of working with highly regarded academics, fellow entrepreneurs, large companies and informed investors in the edtech sector.

I have learned more than I have taught.

Here is what I have learned in and out of the home and the classroom, and how it relates to being an entrepreneur.

Lesson #1

It’s important to stand for – or against – something meaningful 

People love to rally around an idea or a mission. At Mrs Wordsmith, we stand for the fight against boredom, both in classrooms and at home. If you can hold the attention of children, you can educate them. Easier said than done. But in our case, we think about this every minute of every day. We vet our ideas and our products around this simple concept – can it hold the attention of a child? If we fail to engage children, we have failed to deliver on the most critical aspect of learning.

Lesson #2

Lean hard into change until it feels like you are about to topple over 

And don’t worry about falling over because you will. Heavily discount market perceptions that people are not looking for change. It’s not true. We are all looking for change – parents, teachers and schools. It’s just that we may not be able to articulate what we are looking for until you the entrepreneur show us what good looks like. There is so much we resist in life until someone shows us. When we first started Mrs Wordsmith, everyone said to us, “you will never be able to illustrate words that aren’t nouns” and sure enough, it’s the hallmark of what we do. We know how to illustrate words that are difficult to illustrate like ‘ambitious’ or ‘blaring’.

Lesson #3

Don’t make incremental changes – kicking the can up the road is for hobos 

You need to think big. Being an aggregator, making minor improvements to products or services that exist today – this isn’t innovation, it’s repackaging. There is a place for this. But don’t expect customers to pay for it, or students to truly benefit from it. The single biggest problem in the education sector today is incrementalism. Instead of thinking about how to repackage spelling exercises, think about whether we need to teach spelling to primary kids at all? Should we bin the lists and just give kids the space and time to read? Instead of spending 80% of classroom time learning about our history and who we were, how about learning about the future and who we could become? Entrepreneurs shift the 80/20 rule in unexpected and meaningful ways.

Lesson #4

Hire well 

You can’t do it alone. You can’t. Hire people you can learn from. You should admire the people you work with. Hire people who disagree with you, Hire a diversity of personas and mindsets. Make sure you feel a connection to them. You are going to debate a lot of issues together. And then delegate. The more you delegate, the faster you will learn how capable people are.

Lesson #5

Don’t take your culture for granted 

Culture is something you build, not inherit. Culture can be a powerful, single organising principle. It can also be a disease. You want people to feel safe but slightly unhinged so they can be creative. You want them to feel under pressure from the customer, not management, so they genuinely bring their A game to work. And lastly, take care of your people. They will feel more inspired.

I have learned a lot from two – very different – books on culture. One is called Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull the founder of Pixar and the other is Powerful, Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility, by Patty McCord of Netflix.

Lesson #6

Execute, iterate, and execute 

It’s been said so much. But that’s because it’s the hardest thing on earth. Execution is highly nuanced too. You have to read, think and listen a lot to execute well. You have to plan and iterate.

Lesson #7

Saving the best for last. Family and exercise 

The idea for Mrs Wordsmith came from my children, because I was so connected to their needs at school. After a lot of fruitless searching for a product, I decided to create one. The entrepreneur’s story only has a happy ending if you remember to put your family first, or at a minimum, on par with your business.

Being an entrepreneur is hard work. There are times when the boundaries between work and home, or work and health, will be blurred. Only you can set these boundaries. It’s not always easy. But if you truly believe in what you do, you will play the long game. You will set the boundaries that make you a better wife, mother, person, friend – whatever it is that gives you perspective, anchors and rejuvenates you.

About the Author 

Sofia Fenichell is the Founder and CEO of Mrs Wordsmith. Mrs Wordsmith is on a mission to illustrate the English language with the awardwinning artists behind Madagascar and Hotel Transylvania – so children fall in love with learning words. We are the first company to illustrate the English language to re-imagine the dictionary for digital natives and the visual world we live in. Prior to Mrs Wordsmith, Sofia was the CEO and Founder of Rockpack, which created two of the most downloaded video curation apps, regularly featured by Apple. She has an MBA from Columbia Business School and a BA in History from Northwestern University. She is also an agented writer on a novel in the works, called Silicon Sally.

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