Thick Skin and All In:

A talk with Lance Stokes, Cofounder and COO of Lauren James

Consider the situation. She’s pregnant. It isn’t going well. The docs restrict her to bed rest for 10 weeks. To pass the time she sketches dresses, a lot of them. Their son is born but well below an ideal weight. There are challenges. There’s not a lot of money in the bank.

But here’s how husband Lance Stokes saw it. His wife Lauren, a nurse by training, had an obvious passion for design, so why not just go for it and launch a women’s apparel business. And so they did, naming the company Lauren James, after her first name and their son’s middle name. It was 2013. They proceeded to move out of their own home so they could rent it, and moved into the basement of her parent’s home, out of which they would also run the business. It was bootstrapping at its best. Fast forward to 2017. The company has blown up to over $13 million in sales and some 100 full-time and part-time employees. In September they landed #53 on Inc. 5000 list with a three-year growth of 6,010%. Not too shabby.

When we talked to Stokes in the evening, after a long day, it was pretty clear that he’s still working serious hours even though Lauren James has blown up. We dove right into the emotional and mental aspects of being an entrepreneur with a young family. The stress factors, in particular. “No one builds a business without some of that stress,” Stokes said. “It’s compounded when you’re also trying to live a normal life, you know, be married and have children. You’re dealing with your business struggles, and tying that into your personal struggles, it’s definitely challenging.”

Thick Skin Started with Pokemon Cards

When asked how he deals with the stress, Stokes gave us kind of a long answer, almost a stream of consciousness ramble, but as you’ll see it comes down to being conditioned. Not conditioned like the brainwashed assassin in the Manchurian Candidate but conditioned as in seasoned. Let’s hear it in his own words:

“I’ve been an entrepreneur since I was very young, whether it was hustling Beanie Babies or Pokemon cards. In high school I built a decent size lawn mowing business and had a car detailing business on the weekends. So I think the stress of building businesses and having your own fortitude of going after something, I think I was conditioned a little bit more than some entrepreneurs who took their first shot later in life.

“Obviously, my shots after those small businesses were a lot heavier, weighed a lot more. I failed twice before Lauren James in pretty stressful ways. I went through some legal troubles, separating from partners. Now I’m way down the road, still relatively young, but I have really thick skin.”

There you have it. Thick skin. But clearly being an entrepreneur was in Stokes’s DNA too.

Compartmentalizing the Stress

With all of a few more years under his belt, he’s also able to take a more cognitive approach to stress that involves some basic logical reasoning. “I think I compartmentalize stress really well now,” Stokes explained. “We have stressful situations everyday at Lauren James, but I’m able to look at it in a very holistic way and know that this isn’t the end. There’s a tomorrow and let’s figure out a way to get around these stressful situations in the most positive way possible.”

We pushed him on what he meant by a holistic way. Does he have a set of mental exercises he goes through? Does he go to a happy place? It’s a little of both as he reminds himself of some things to keep it all in perspective. “I start with my family first, my kids and wife, they’re always first, business is always second,” he said. “I realize if Lauren James were to fail I still have them.”

Second, if the company were to fail, he tells himself, “I could build something again.” That’s his go to. He did it before and can do it again. Then his thought process takes him to a worst-case scenario. Even if nothing works, he tells himself, “I’m not going to die most likely.” Sure there will be some hardships, but he’ll still have his family. “It starts with family and it actually ends there as well and that really gives me peace of mind.” Then he added, “I’m not phased by failure that much. It’s another step into building something better. … I’m a hardheaded entrepreneur. I’m going to hustle until I find a way.”

The Extended Family Is a Driving Force

Now that the company has over 100 full-time and part-time employees, we wondered about how that adds to the stress quotient. Stokes acknowledged that for some of the employees who have been around a while you start to know their lives. He then explained, “That’s another driving force for me. It’s not only that I’m supporting my family but I’m supporting my work family as well.” So he sees it as more motivation to succeed rather than a source of stress. “These people are counting on me, I have to make it work.”

OK, we poked him to see if having his wife as a partner added some stress. He admitted they both can be obstinate, but they both bring different skill sets and have defined responsibilities. Turns out, fully knowing your partner is a benefit. There’s a lot that can go unspoken because they know where each other stands and what they’ll do. Kind of telepathic, if you believe in that.

Finally we got to the main stressor Stokes has had to deal with over the course of his young career: “The financial part has always been a pain point, stressful. Making sure that capital is there continues to be a sticking point.” And of course cash flow is king. For all of eternity. “Cash flow has always been a stressor for me,” he said, “and will continue to be forever.”

Incremental Is Not In His Vocabulary

Talk of money naturally leads to risk. In light of him having a young family, we asked Stokes whether he thought about an incremental business approach to minimize risk. His answer was quick and to the bone. “Incremental is not even a word in my vocabulary. I was like, let’s risk it all, let’s go.” He did allow that now that there’s more to lose, some risk sensitivity is inevitable. But as far as he is concerned, successful entrepreneurs have to be all in. “I think it’s an innate personality trait,” he concluded.

At the same time, Stokes has had to learn to bring balance into his life. “A unique challenge has been learning how to have proper balance. I’m really geared in a go-go-go direction, so learning to really listen to Lauren and be a dad, it’s been hard to adapt to.” It also helps that he belongs to a founders group in his area, whose membership includes founders from a variety of fields. He admits, “We’re all a bit odd in our own way.” But their regular meetings make for great therapy when needed. Thick skin, all in, and bull sessions with peers sure seems to go a long way.