What’s the most bullshit startup advice out there?
I got lots of advice when I was starting my first business, and a lot of it was crap, but that’s okay. I was asking crappy questions; I was a neophyte, that’s what neophytes do. Plus, I was 21, and what does anyone know when they’re 21?
Years have passed and it’s not like I morphed into Startup Yoda, but I compare who I am now to my 21-year-old self who kept coming up against brick walls, and I realise that through all the startups and projects I’ve worked with since then, I’ve definitely refined my bullshit radar.
I’m continuing to do that every year and maybe that’s all I ever set out to do in the first place. Bukowski was referring to women, but this line describes how I feel about startups:
“The more rivers you crossed, the more you knew about rivers — that is, if you survived the white water and hidden rocks.”
There’s a certain sense of faux maturity/accomplishment from being able to look back at certain myths you once accepted as truth and to know that you’ve comfortably outgrown taking them at face value.
Myth 1: Starting a business is for everyone — and it’s fun!
I stopped attending startup workshops because being at them started to feel like I was reading Cosmo: reality is often spliced up as glossy and digestible as opposed to a complicated mess that’s unique and painful and beautiful. I got sick of the fairy-tale that seems so interwoven into the zeitgeist… it’s now annoyingly fashionable to start something, to become someone, to follow the entrepreneurial path as if everyone is suited to it.
I really disagree with the notion of, “Just come up with an idea, find customers, and bang! Move over, Zuckerberg!” Few facilitators talk about the realities I’ve witnessed through getting to know Escape members, as well as having experienced some of them myself.
Starting your own venture is meaningful, hell yes, but meaningful pursuits aren’t always fun. You get panic attacks at 3 am about money; you sometimes grow apart from people you were once close to; maybe you even have to rely on your parents in a way that makes you uncomfortable.
You can find yourself questioning why you’re choosing to take this rocky, wobbly dirt path instead of just hopping on the highway like everyone else. So why do we start businesses? (Well, why do we start any kind of relationship?) I think learning to answer that question (truthfully) is a huge part of the process itself.
Myth 2: If you try hard enough, it’ll work. So just keep persevering!
We’ve all heard that it took Thomas Edison a gazillion attempts before he invented the light bulb, and yeah, good things take time. BUT pursuing a flawed idea and getting dismal results but CONTINUING to pursue the flawed idea without changing course is foolish.
Just because you want something to work, that doesn’t mean that it will work. When you’ve been to private schools your whole life, where everyone’s bending over backwards to make sure you succeed (I went to private schools, so I’m counting myself in that category of the artificially entitled), it can be hard to accept that sometimes, no matter how much you try (or spend)… your attempts still aren’t enough to swing reality your way.
I believe in committing to a vision but iterating the course it takes to get there. This often means swallowing your pride, accepting your limits, and relying on a mixture of data and intuition. There are data-driven methodologies to embarking upon enlightened business model development, as opposed to ‘just sticking with it’ because of a pig-headed determination to succeed at all costs. Those methodologies are outlined in the lean principles made popular by Eric Ries and Steve Blank. Not everyone’s a lean fan, but I certainly am.
Myth 3: If your business plan is strong enough, you can’t fail…
The truth is, no matter what you do, you can still fail. And no amount of conversation or knowledge or love can protect you from that. You can be smart as hell — that doesn’t mean that you’re not going to fail. Business plans and forecasts are guesses. You can refine your accuracy through trial and error, but the key word there is ‘error’. You will try things, you will make errors, and that will inform your intelligence.
Your first business plan is unlikely to work out, but your seventeenth, or your twenty-second… that one’s much more likely to be accurate. It took me a few years of working in startups to realise that having a failed startup idea behind you is a badge of honour. (I realise that’s very un-British and hey, I’m not British, so maybe it’s just easier for me to accept that.)
Amateurs are blank slates. Professionals have battle scars. Those battle scars don’t mean that you’re an idiot who couldn’t figure out how to make a business work: they mean that you’ve got guts, that you’ve actually attempted shit, instead of just talking about it, that you’re way more likely to succeed later down the track, because you’ve been humbled and brought down to size.
Myth 4: You need funding to get going.
Unless you’re going into an incubator, your best bet is to bootstrap. Angels and VCs aren’t money-trees and you often need to not need them in order to be considered by them. Bootstrapping means developing a prototype and then using that prototype to independently build an early revenue stream.
If nobody’s pre-ordering or paying you for what you’re trying to sell, and you can’t find early customers, maybe it’s not that the marketing needs tweaking — maybe the customer pain just isn’t what you thought it was. That’s fine. It is what it is. Either change the offering, or change the course you’re on, or change the target customers. I’m pretty sure I read, “Nothing changes if nothing changes” on a running blog, and it was such a simple piece of common sense, but as Carrie-Bradshaw as it sounds, sometimes it’s the most obvious advice that’s the hardest to absorb.