The blood, sweat, and tears of living the startup life.
TLDR: Startups are unimaginably difficult. Tweet this.
Right now joining or starting a startup is the sexy thing to do, but don’t get fooled by the hype.
It’s so easy to get swept up in the great stories and lives of people like Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Elon Musk & how successful their respective companies are. It’s tempting to sit in your bed at night dreaming of leaving your high paying banking or corporate job and heading west to Silicon Valley, leaving the cubicle farm to make a difference and change the world.
All of this startup activity is awesome and necessary for our economy but before you make the decision you should do a serious gut check and fully understand if this is the life you want to live.
Because the harsh reality is startups are unimaginably hard.
On the surface level startups involves more responsibility, less pay, and more sacrifices, but this is just the beginning down the rabbit hole. It’s very hard to articulate how being in a startup is really like without firsthand experience, but I hope to illuminate a glimpse into this reality.
Here are a few representative examples:
- Twitter – Twitter originally began its life as Odeo in July 2005 as a platform for podcasting. They raised money, hired 14 people, but the product was going completely sideways. After much hardship they decided to throw out a couple of side projects, one of them being Twttr (Twitter, originally didn’t have any vowels in their name) in July 2006. Their initial launch didn’t get great reviews and even then it took a few years after this for Twitter to get any real traction.
- OMGPOP – Began it’s life as I’minlikewithyou in 2006 as a flirting application, then changed to a multiplayer social gaming network (at that point they changed their name to OMGPOP), hired a professional CEO in the middle of that, raised $17M, launched 35 separate games of which none ever got real traction and they were planning on running out of money and shutting down in May 2012. This is when they created their “overnight success” iPhone game Draw Something which was bought by Zynga for $180M.
- SpaceX – They are an orbital rocket company which took the complete opposite of the “lean startup approach”. They crashed their first 3 rockets, blew through $120M, Elon Musk the founder was practically bankrupt, and all this happened before their first successful rocket launch.
- Foursquare – The idea of Foursquare started in 1999 when Dennis Crowley, the founder, started Dodgeball one of the first social/location based applications. After basically being completely broke, collecting unemployment checks and teaching kids how to snowboard for $8/hr, they officially incorporated Dodgeball in 2004. Long story short they were bought by Google, then shut down by Google, and the same idea was turned into today’s successful Foursquare after 12+ years.
- Rovio (Angry Birds) – Started in 2003 after the founders participated in a gaming hackathon. They developed and launched 51 separate games before Angry Birds which was created in December 2009. The “overnight success” of Angry Birds took 8 years and $42M
During these long stretches of unsuccessful launches and failures, its easy to feel depressed.
Personally there were moments in StartupDigest‘s history where my co-founder and I literally couldn’t afford for rent the next month and things just weren’t working. This was all happening after leaving the steady career path, putting my heart and soul into the company, and having other people on payroll who depended on us living. Layer on top of this normal personal stresses, relationships stresses, and things can get overwhelming.
This is the reality of running a startup. Most people (who aren’t insane) could never withstand the psychological and social pressures associated with a startup. The personal sacrifice is almost unbearable. This is why people say “start a company you are passionate about” because a passion for the problem you are solving is literally the only thing that will keep you alive. It’s that undying-will that you can change the world and belief that you will personally make it happen.
This is why most startups fail. Don’t be fooled by the hype. Do a startup because you care about it not because it’s the cool thing to do.
If you’re already in a startup and feeling overwhelmed I highly recommend watching “Running the Sahara” to help put things in perspective. Also here are some personal tips that have helped me through the hard times:
- Keep moving – Even if its just a little bit everyday. Accomplishing small goals and keeping momentum is one of the most important things to staying alive.
- Expect the unexpected – It’s impossible to know everything that will happen in advance.
- Ignorance is bliss – If you knew all the hardships ahead beforehand it would be incredibly hard to ever start.
- Pushing personal limits – Your own personal limits are the only thing stopping you not your competition, lack of money, lack of market share, etc.
- The experience is the journey itself – It’s not about the end (acquisition, IPO, etc) but the everyday moments that make startups what they are.
- Being an early employee helps alleviate much of this initial stress, being a late employee alleviates a lot of these stresses. Although ultimately these stresses are always present
- There are very rare counter-examples of startups who do well from the beginning but that’s incredibly rare and most likely not going to happen to you.
Hacker news discussion here.