Three Bad and Two Good Reasons to Start a Startup

I’ve started five companies, four of which failed miserably, one which did fairly well. I was also one of the first five employees of a startup which did quite well.

I learned a few things from the failures, some from the successes:

Three Bad Reasons to Start a High-Growth Startup

1. Flexibility

It’s easy to imagine that starting a startup will lead to a life of kicking back and chasing rainbows while the company runs itself. In reality, you'll have the flexibility to choose which 23 hours you want to spend each day agonizing over and attempting to execute the numerous facets of the venture. You might encounter a unicorn, but it will be dancing across your desk when you start hallucinating from sleep deprivation (think of this as the 400-hour-work-week).

2. Fame and Fortune

The dream of overnight success—the “quick flip”—has tremendous allure. The thought of becoming a founder once set me daydreaming of ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange or getting a call from an editor at WIRED requesting an interview.

But big dreams quickly give way to relentless daily demands. I found myself drowning in the challenges of finding and motivating the right people, along with the endless array of tweaks and pivots inherent in developing a product. If your sole motivation is the faint possibility of “making it big,” you will run out of steam way before your enterprise hits its first rollout.

3. Impact

Wanting to leave a positive, lasting mark on the world is a noble aspiration. The problem is that there are already tens of thousands of great companies in the world hard at work solving complex problems. They have established infrastructures and hard-won expertise. Just having a general wish to make a difference is not enough to join their ranks.

It is specific, measurable impact that matters. Which brings me to…

Two Good Reasons to Start a High-Growth Startup

1. Desire to Solve a Specific Problem

Suppose you have identified a problem in business or in daily life, and you can’t stop wondering why it exists and why it hasn’t been solved. Maybe you find yourself subtly shifting conversations with your family and friends toward this problem. Maybe you’ve come up with a quirky solution for yourself and a few other people you know, and now constantly imagine a world where the problem no longer exists.

A relentless drive to solve a problem no one else has adequately addressed is the single best reason to start a high-growth startup.

Only start a venture if you believe that the problem is not properly addressed by those other thousands of companies; or that they won't give you a seat at the table and you want to go about solving the problem differently.

2. Willingness to Accept Failure—Or Redefine Success

(This is more of a prerequisite than a reason to start a company).

Which matters more to you: that the problem you have identified gets solved, or that you are the one who reaps the benefits of solving it?

If you're truly cut out to be a founder, then you shouldn't be devastated if someone else beats you in solving this problem. If you spend ten years working on this one problem, prioritizing it above everything else in your life, and it fails miserably, you shouldn't be crushed. You just want the problem solved, and you love the chase, whether or not you catch the rabbit.

So . . .

Startups are built around problems. Stand in front of a mirror, look yourself in the eyes, and tell yourself that in all likelihood, your startup will fail. If you still feel charged up about the chance to dive head first into every nuance of the problem, then your heart pumps the blood of a founder.

In short, you should only become a founder or early-stage employee if there is a problem that so fascinates you (however boring) that you actually want it to consume you. Because if you start a high-growth company, and do it right, it will consume you. It should.

So examine your motivations and proceed with caution.

If you want to test your value proposition in the wild and see if people actually have the problem that you want to solve, we can help with putting a marketing page together and testing your idea with you. Come say hi: https://www.startuplab.work/start/

Illustration: Jade Xuan Wu (2017, www.jadexwu.com)

You Are Not That Original: Why You Shouldn’t Ask for NDAs

It is the fear that haunts every founder: You spend months or years developing a new product, only to have a competitor steal your idea and beat you to market. Requiring everyone associated with your enterprise to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) seems like a necessary precaution to protect your substantial investment of time and resources.

But here is the cold, hard truth.

YOU ARE NOT THAT ORIGINAL. You just aren’t. Odds are that at least 20 other individuals or organizations are working on your “one-of-a-kind” concept. In a world with over 7 billion people, with information zipping around the planet at light speed, there are way too many minds at work and ideas in the air for you to be the only one putting two and two together. It would be delusional to think otherwise.

In the highly, highly unlikely event that nobody else is doing what you’re doing, then you are either decades ahead of your time (in which case, you have nothing to fear), or you have failed to grasp the complexities of the undertaking.

A Lesson from Invention History

In early 1876, the world population was about a quarter of what it is today, and the only semblance of high-speed communication was the cumbersome telegraph. Information moved at the speed of … mail. Against that backdrop, Alexander Graham Bell’s lawyers filed a patent application for a revolutionary device, the telephone.

… And so did lawyers for inventor Elisha Gray …

… On the same day!!

Not only that, a third inventor, Antonio Meucci, had made a preliminary patent filing for a “talking telegraph” five years earlier, in 1871.

So … did I mention that you’re not that original?

If all someone else needs to steal your business and sink your enterprise is knowledge of a single strategy, or even multiple strategies, then start looking for a new job. Don’t even go after it.

Quality and Execution Trump Originality

Building a company is hard. It should be hard. You want it to be hard. You don’t want every Joe Schmo with desk and a file cabinet to become your competitor.

You’re not that original. But that doesn’t mean you can’t stand out from the crowd. The great New York Yankees relief pitcher Mariano Rivera never made any secret of what pitch he would throw with the game on the line. He didn’t invent the pitch, and many other pitchers used it. But when he threw it, no one could hit it. He wasn’t original, but his mastery made him unique.

Your idea should be complex. The team should be hard to assemble. The execution should require diverse expertise and certain elegance. And that’s only part of the story. You want the marketing to be clever, the branding unforgettable, and the design flawless. Get all of that right, and you’ll have no need to obsess over secrecy.

A Simple Conclusion

Give up the delusion of complete originality. Asking advisors or investors to sign your NDA alienates them and erodes trust, while serving no useful purpose. Just don’t do it.

Illustration: Jade Xuan Wu (2017, www.jadexwu.com)

Special thanks to Kara Bernert (tw: @_beavz)