"Don't Walk This Way"
A response to the startup warning messages
Whether or not you should start a business or join a startup is a frequently penned blog post these days. Articles seem like they are being written daily by prominent and successful entrepreneurs, especially in the tech sector, that warn would-be entrepreneurs about the dangers of a starting/running/joining a startup. Most of these articles have a tendency to scare the reader off the entire idea of entrepreneurialism in the name of transparency. We're told it's an irrational risk, it's going to be really hard and it's probably going to fail. Ironically, it's mostly serial entrepreneurs that have written this post. Even more bizarre is when investors harp on the downside of starting a company. A few weeks ago I was at a pitch event where an investor at a very deep stacked VC firm was on a panel, supposedly there to learn about new startups in the name of deal flow. He went on a 5 minute rant about why it's a bad idea to start a company (side note: he left before any of the company pitches). He was a walking talking contradiction.
I hate these articles and the fact that they are often positioned as the author trying to be helpful and transparent. Every time I read these posts, I really just think the author comes off as condescending and insecure. If a failed entrepreneur writes it, they seem to be attempting to publicly justify that they failed at something very hard. If a successful entrepreneur writes this, that's even worse because that person comes off as looking for adoration for succeeding at something really hard. 'Let me tell you how hard and miserable starting a company is going to be, and don't forget to check out my bio link at the end that describes how I was successful at it'. Insecurities aside, I question why these authors feel the need to write this post in the first place. Is there really anyone out there looking at a startup play who doesn't know that it's hard, risky, and a long-shot to succeed?
But therein lies the deeper issue. The real danger in this approach is the broad generalization that the 'downside' to being an entrepreneur is really even downside in the eyes of everyone. In fact, each of these common objections are characteristics of what many people are actually looking for in a professional endeavor.
"It's an irrational risk to start a company or join a startup "
The odds of a startup succeeding are low. This isn't news to anyone who is thinking about doing this. But I would argue that risk is not a real deterrent to many, myself included. My favorite quote by an obscure French author describes real risk to me:
"Anything can happen in life, especially nothing" - Michel Houellebecq
Risk means looking back on a 40 year career and realizing that about halfway into it you made enough money to be fine for the rest of your life, and yet you kept plugging along that path because it was safe and secure. But in reflection, you realized you accomplished nothing of significance or impact. You took no real risks and worse your contribution was immaterial. You grinded out years and decades, you took your 2% cost of living yearly raises and the occasional promotion. You played defense against threats to your comfort zone. And in the process, you lost your creative spirit in daily meetings and process, played office politics, and made no material difference on anyone outside of your building. You played it safe and then you retire and then you die. Your life's work was a commodity. That is real risk - a professional life that produced nothing out of the ordinary because you played it safe.
The risk of a startup is the best part about whole deal. At Tackk, we feed off the fact that this can crash and burn and if that happens we all face scrutiny and judgement and a public failure. With risk comes urgency and necessity, and necessity forces people to stretch their abilities. Stretching yourself to grow quickly in a multi-dimensional way only happens when you have to do it. When you are desperate to avoid that failure, that is when you can truly start to tap your potential, and this is the common state of most employees or founders at startups. If you aren't in this state, you shouldn't be at a startup.
"Startups are hard"
What if hard (long hours, difficult situations, unsolved problems, and frequent barriers to scale) is what someone wants or needs to be fulfilled professionally?
Why are some people wired this way? I can't state it any better than this scene from a League of Their Own:
I always respect someone who does something hard, especially when doing so requires prolonged focus and resiliency. Whether that's someone who started a business, ran a full marathon, or lost a bunch of weight. I think most people respect others by the same criteria - so why would anyone say that engaging in something hard is anything but opportunity for greatness?
"Odds are it's probably going to fail"
This is the least relevant argument in the entire discussion, but shows up in every one of these posts. First, we need to ask what constitutes failure? This is probably a statement on the lack of net capital gain in the endeavor (and possibly a look at the opportunity cost of more steady employment).
But this discounts the value of any of the learnings, connections, skills honed or interpersonal growth that is gained by being at a startup. But even if we count all of that as valueless, the net financial impact can't be calculated in a vacuum because you can never know the real opportunity cost beyond speculation. You may have been fired at your steady job a week after passing up a startup opportunity. Conversely, your startup failure might have positioned you with better skills and experience to land a higher paying job or opportunity after the fact. It's impossible to speculate, and irrational to calculate the net financial impact of the "failure" without looking at the entire sequence of events. You can only really calculate it when you call a career a career and you're ready to stop working altogether. At that point, the money will be a lot less important and the risks taken will hold more value in your assessment of your life's work.
I think the point of it all is there is really no use in warning people about how hard/risky/irrational startups are. Those who are committed to the mission won't waver by reading the warning and those who can be sold off the idea by simply reading your blog post would have been quickly been eliminated by natural selection anyway. So here's to hoping that successful entrepreneurs and investors take a less self-serving and more insightful approach to their next post.