We (me and presumably anyone who reads this post) are startup people. That’s what we do. Day in and day out. I think about startups every day, 7 days a week — even though I know I probably shouldn’t. The Valley is a fascinating place for startups. Honestly, you absolutely cannot find a better ecosystem than what exists here. I realized this only after being here and seeing what it is like everyday. I still kick myself for not moving here in 1996, when I started my first company. Don’t get me wrong, Pittsburgh, PA was very good to me and I love, respect and admire the people I met there. I wouldn’t have been able to make it without all the coaching and guidance I received along the way. But the Valley is still its own beast.
However, sometimes I feel that in all the hubub of startup life, we lose perspective of one thing: Starting up is hard. It is hard not because it is intellectually hard or that it takes a lot of work. And yes, it takes both of those. But is is especially hard because of the emotions that surround the process of starting up. Though I’ve known this for a while, it only surfaced in my mind when a young graduate student at Stanford posed the question to me more directly: “How did you deal with the emotions of doing a startup?” In particular his question was directed towards whether he should take the safe route and go get a job or whether he should take the entrepreneurial leap of faith. This made me think back to my experience of startup up 12-13 years ago and also reflect upon what I am doing today. The punchline first: Starting up is hard. And it doesn’t get a whole lot easier.
Starting a company is as much a personal decision as it is a professional one. Yes you need to be smart, yes you need to have an idea, but, yes you also need to think through all the emotions of venturing out on your own. For someone coming out of a good graduate program (like I was at Carnegie Mellon when I started and like the person who inspired this post is at Stanford) there is no dearth of job opportunities. Even in a market as bad as today’s, companies still salivate over students from top schools. So starting a venture right out of school comes with an opportunity cost. You can either take the safe route of going to work at a company where someone else is paying you and you do your job, and make big bucks right off the bat. By contrast, if you chose to start your own company, you have to figure most of it out on your own. You possibly will not get a paycheck for a long time and you will be stressed out of your mind with all the decisions you need to make but feel that you aren’t qualified to make. Things like choosing a law firm, finding an accountant, hiring people, finding an office, figuring out equity structures, raising money. And that’s just the list from the top of my head, there is a lot more than that too.
In this scenario, when you’re starting out right out of school, I say: “The greatest position of strength is when you have nothing to lose.” You’ve already been living on a meager stipend. You haven’t started earning the big bucks and your lifestyle has a low burn rate. That’s the best time to start a company, because you’re making a lateral move and not taking a step down as you would if you try to start a company after going to work somewhere else. And if things don’t work out, you know all you have to do is raise your hand and job offers will come. Your startup experience won’t be held against you, and you will still have your academic training to fall back on. That was part of my thinking when I started. I had all of $5,000 to my name when I started my first company. There wasn’t much to lose.
But, once you do decide to start a company, that’s when things get really tough — emotionally. In my analysis, most of the stress stems from the fact that starting up requires making lots of decisions. A decision to not take that cushy job. A decision to hire someone when you don’t know how you’re going to pay him/her yet. A decision to rent office space before you have the money for it. A decision to pick a law firm. A decision to pick your co-founders. A decision to pick your advisors. Decisions, decisions and more decisions. And this is something people can give you advice on, but ultimately it is your decision. And it’s hard because you second guess yourself. You don’t really know whether what you are doing is going to work. Sometimes you get this sick feeling in your stomach which makes you think “What am I really doing here?”
That emotional distress is only complicated more when someone close to you begins to question you. In a lot of cases it’s parents, but it could also be your spouse or your best friend. While they aren’t actively trying to make your life complicated, they inevitably do — because they have your best interest at heart. They’re also usually very risk averse. They may not even understand your vision and think that you’re just building castles in the air. That one question: “Do you really think this is a good idea?” Or “Don’t you think that <insert hot company name here> would be a nice place to work for a while before you go out on your own?” feels like a stake going through your being. If you’re lucky they will be behind you no matter what. It’s part of their job to question you. To make you think twice.
An entrepreneur’s life is full of stress. While I don’t have any scientific data to back this up, anecdotally, I have known several entrepreneurs who have all developed similar physiological manifestations of the stress they are under. The stress of starting up is one of the reasons why 2-founder teams have a higher likelihood of success than and single founder — because you get to load balance and spread the stress. When one person is down, the other person can pick up the slack. You boost each others confidence. Sometimes just knowing that someone else shares your vision is just the moral support you need in order to get going. I started my first company as a solo-founder and I can tell you from first hand experience, it is way harder than it would have been with a co-founder. But, finding a co-founder can be just as hard. As an entrepreneur, you make the best of what you have. You make lemonade.
K9 Ventures is my new startup. It’s a meta-level startup — a startup that helps to start other startups. And even today as I do what I consider is my 4th real entrepreneurial venture (there have been others along the way that I don’t count) I can feel the same stresses that I went through when starting my first company. You learn to recognize it, but you still have to deal with it. So the best advice I can offer to fellow entrepreneurs is to surround yourself with good advisors who have done it before (not consultants or VCs, but real entrepreneurs). People who have had a similar experience and can help to guide you through the process. They may not be able to get you to your destination — that’s something you have to do internally, in your own mind, but they can certainly point you in the right direction.
For all the glorification of the invincible, unshakeable entrepreneur just remember that when they started out, they went through all the same turmoil in their heads that you are going through. It’s part of the process. It is the essential part of the journey that makes real entrepreneurs empathize with others and willing to help. It is what ultimately makes you a better human being. The best entrepreneurs are humble, yet determined. Humble because they don’t know how they ever did it before and because if they had to do it again, it would still be hard. And they are determined because it does take insane perseverance in the face of complete resistance to do a startup.
Ultimately doing a startup is about passion and perseverance. It is an experience of a lifetime that cannot be replicated in any other setting. No educational program can even come close to what you learn in doing your own startup. And regardless of whether you succeed or you fail, no one can take that experience and that learning away from you. That is your true gift.
Yes, starting up is hard, but don’t let that stop you.