Founders are idiots. They have to be.
Why else would they go broke, move back in with Mom, and work 80 hours a week for a big, shiny pile of bupkis year after grueling year? Mere passion isn’t enough. At some point, they’re just running on sheer tenacity, commitment, experience, and a shoestring trickle of revenue and/or savings.
That’s the reality of startup life. Yet we glorify founders, highlighting the successes and barely taking time to acknowledge the endless graveyard of failures.
If you’re a founder, chances are you’ll fail. So seriously consider the following 10 points of advice. You might save yourself a couple failures by doing so.
You’ve never tried a real job
I know founding seems exciting, but have you ever worked inside a tech company? How about doing so for more than a year at a time? Have you ever stuck around long enough to get a promotion?
If all you’ve tried so far is freelancing, consulting, or agency work, founding is a pretty big leap. You don’t know about how companies run from the inside, about different management styles. You might have trouble forming and functioning in teams.
Why this is bad for founders: Founding requires commitment and longevity. Regardless of your C-suite title, in day-to-day operations, you’re functioning as a team lead responsible for managing a small crew of professionals. Experience in management with a corporate safety net is a boon.
You’ve already failed at one or more startups
We fetishize failure in the startup community, and we especially fetishize failing quickly. But regardless of the lessons you learn or the network you build, failure is still a bad thing.
In and of itself, failure is the universe telling you that your idea wasn’t good enough.
And it’s got nothing to do with execution. It’s your idea. Twitter was really poorly executed at first. It succeeded. Ditto for Facebook and lots of other consumer software. Ditto for a lot of programming languages. You can have wiggle room in execution for a truly great idea.
Why this is bad for founders: A string of bad ideas is more than just “throwing [stuff] at a wall and seeing what sticks.” It might be a sign that you’re jumping in too deep, too quickly. Fail at a few side projects, if you must. But be cautious about rushing into a new venture with nothing but failure under your belt.
You can’t design or code
Lean startup culture says you need three archetypes for a startup: a developer, a designer, and a hustler. Traditionally, the hustler does biz dev, sales, hiring, and management tasks.
But what does a hustler do at a founding-stage startup, really? It often turns into long hours for long hours’ sake, lots of meetings with few outcomes, and boatloads of cheerleading and enthusiasm for a business that’s generating no income and has few or no users.
If you can’t pinpoint your exact skill set — and if your skill set isn’t unique, valuable, and directly related to product creation — you might want to take an employee position at a later stage company.
Why this is bad for founders: Creating a minimum viable product is often Task Number One at a lean startup. Your salary shortens the runway for such a nascent company, and you can’t sell, aka “hustle,” against a product that doesn’t exist yet.
You’re young and/or inexperienced
Youth is another Silicon Valley fetish. But youth often means a lack of wisdom and practical experience.
Go back to the section on never having had a real job. Most of that applies here, too, with the added caveat that being young means being less able to hire and manage more experienced players to flesh out your employee roster.
The young founder who hits on an immediate successful business their first time around is an anomaly. Don’t buy into the idea that youth automatically equates to fresh ideas and more energy to work harder. Sometimes, it just means you end up making rookie mistakes over and over again.
Why this is bad for founders: Without time to experience life and work, to get an education, and to gradually get your feet wet in the startup world, you set yourself up for failure.
You have no network
“It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.”
Startup success is actually a lot about what you know. Can you code? Can you create beautiful products? Do you have a good sense of marketplace fit and what people want to use?
But when it comes time to raise money, sell products, work with advertisers, or create partnerships, you need a few inside leads. You don’t have to live in Silicon Valley, but having a couple friends who do can make a world of difference.
Why this is bad for founders: Without friends and friends-of-friends who’ve already had some success in tech, you don’t have a jumping-off point for raising money (if you need it), finding a critical mass of customers and advertisers (if you’re bootstrapping), and forging rock-solid partnerships with potential acquirers (if you dream of a lucrative exit).
Your big idea is unoriginal
“There is nothing new under the sun.”
It’s an old saying, but it’s mighty true: There’s no such thing as an original idea. Einstein might have come close with his theory of relativity, but even that was the ultimate conclusion in a centuries-long chain of physics discoveries and assertions.
And let’s face it: You’re no Einstein.
Chances are, no matter what you tell others, you do have competitors. And your biggest competitor might be Facebook, Google, Oracle, or Salesforce. Going up against a Goliath is an admirable task, but nine times out of 10, you’ll get crushed by one thing or another.
If the market is saturated with variations on your idea, back slowly away from your drawing board and wait for your next big idea.
Why this is bad for founders: With too many competitors come too many problems. You might not be able to wedge your way into a crowded marketplace. Or you might get suddenly squashed by a drawn-out patent or other IP lawsuit.
You get bored really quickly
Startups take commitment, and commitment takes practice. Did you end up marrying your high school sweetheart? Typically not.
Sticking around at a 9-to-5 is great practice for the long-haul slog of starting a company of your own. Startups can take around five to seven years from the time you get your idea off the ground until the time you can make some money on that idea, whether through exit or profitability.
Why this is bad for founders: If you are bad at follow-through and abandon careers or projects after you lose interest, you are simply not founder material. You need to develop the strength, tenacity, and character to keep on going with a good attitude, even when you’re tired, discouraged, and bored out of your skull.
You have no net worth
You don’t have to be a millionaire to do a startup. But you do need a year or so of living capital saved up.
Even if you move back in with your parents and live on ramen alone, you’ll still have expenses: hardware, cellphone bills, servers, anything-as-a-service. You need cash, dude(tte) — the kind of cash that comes from hard-earned savings (or a trust fund or inheritance or sugar momma/daddy, whatever).
Why this is bad for founders: If you can’t meet your own most basic needs and bootstrap your way to breaking even or raising money, you are literally crazy to quit your job to start a company. It makes no sense. In the words of Gob Bluth, “Come on!”
You don’t know what you want
Why do you want to be a founder? This is brutally difficult territory and requires immense passion and Herculean dedication.
Scratch that: It requires Odyssean dedication. You’re on a quest with no end in sight. Every task seems impossible. There are new difficulties around every corner.
So why the heck would you want to do that?
If you don’t have a clear vision, if you’re only running on the heady fumes of startup mania, you will most certainly fail.
Why this is bad for founders: Enthusiasm only goes so far. Only a heart and mind obsessed with a specific mission will be able to sustain you through the hard times that await you.
You’re the primary breadwinner of a multiperson household
I don’t care if you’re a traditional dad-type with 2.5 kids and a wife and a dog or if you’re a single lesbian African-American mom with one kid and a cat: If you are the one who is financially responsible for the care of your family, think long and hard about the decision to be a founder.
Statistically, you will fail. You will spend time and lots of money during the process of failing.
You think kids are expensive and time consuming? Kiss your kids, spouse, and savings goodbye, buddy. Not only will you not get to spend time with them, you’ll also have drastically less money to spend on them.
Now, if you can create a product as a side project, make or raise money, and then quit your job, you’re both hardworking and wise.
Why this is bad for founders: Financial responsibility and care for others are hugely important when starting a new company. How can you manage company funds and manage a team of employees if your own household is in disarray?
There is no shame in being an employee. Startup and corporate employees alike are what our industry and country and planet run on. So even though you admire and are wildly turned on by entrepreneurship, don’t just jump on the bandwagon. Be smart enough to consider all your options before you quit (or don’t take) that job.
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