Beware: The bad things of building a startup.

What Startup Stress Feels Like

There is one specific piece of advice that has stuck with me since I arrived in Silicon Valley; a piece of advice that I heard from the founder of 500 startups Dave McClure who very publicly and honestly espouses the fact that building startups is all about pain, suffering, and sacrifice. He is 100% right.

Building a startup is about sacrificing the vast majority of activities, and to some degree people, that are dear to you for the purpose of building something really great (or what is hopefully really great). It is, or at least should be, a very strategic analysis encompassing an honest review of your capabilities and experience, the marketplace that you are entering, and the people that believe in you enough to support you in a myriad of ways as you trek into the unknown.

So with no specific order of importance, these are some of the things you should consider before dropping everything and almost everyone in your current world to jump onto the startup train in Silicon Valley.

  1. Stress. Be prepared for amazing amounts of stress. Choosing this lifestyle will make uncertainty your most common emotional state, and the physical by-product of this emotional state is anguishing physical stress. While a bit funny in retrospect, I remember my co-founder telling me that he had “knots and butterflies” in his stomach from all the stress soon after we arrived here. I did too. The truth is that even if you are funded (ie you have some time to figure out how to achieve success) the awesome dark clouds of failure are always floating a few inches above you and never leave you alone. They constantly scream at you to quit, forget, and accept defeat. And unless you focus on worrying about what you CAN change and disregarding what you CAN’T, it will be hard to survive out here. I speak from experience and with great humility because the jury is still out on me.
  2. Your capabilities. While it certainly varies from person to person, make sure that in your gut you understand and have experience with what it is to convince people on a new idea, start working on it, finish it, and then optimize it. If you don’t have much experience with doing any of the above you will find the entire startup experience 100x harder than you originally envisioned.
  3. The opinion of others. About 14 months before I launched my current startup I began to pitch my idea to a few trusted friends and advisors. Even though what we are working on today is markedly different from where we began, I started doing the grunt-work of testing my hypothesis long before choosing to bet my entire life on it. This process proves three things: that you can sell an idea, that your idea has legs, and that your idea is simple enough that both friends and experts can quickly grasp it. While it may sound surprising, some of the very best and most critical feedback will not come from experts but from those closest to you, they can sense BS so much faster than anyone else.
  4. The marketplace. Get to know your competition really well. Make sure that what you are planning to build is absolutely and positively better than what your potential competitors have to offer, and more importantly run the numbers to make sure that its also cheaper. Anyone can make a car last forever, but almost no-one will be able to afford it.
  5. Be billion dollar honest. Truth is you probably don’t have a billion dollar idea. Almost no one does. In fact, while I originally thought our startup had a 100% no questions asked multi-billion dollar idea, I have since run the numbers and realized that while many billions of dollars in sales is absolutely possible, it is also highly unlikely. If you can live with the fact that you will NOT be the next Steve Jobs, or Larry Ellison, and are still as excited about going through hell, have friends and experts who recommend it, and a team that is as foolhardy as you… then you probably should look further into it.
Interesting update: Elon Musk, a hero in my book, today mentioned that “Building a startup is like staring into the face of death” during SF techcrunch disrupt ’11. He is soo right!

One thought on “Beware: The bad things of building a startup.

  1. That image must be an illustration of a passage in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Canto 32 (at the end), where a demon sinks his teeth on the head of someone.

    “Y como el hambriento en el pan, así el de encima clavó sus dientes al de abajo en el sitio donde el cerebro se une con la nuca. No mordió con más furor Tydeo las sienes de Menalipo, como éste el cráneo de su enemigo y todo lo demás que contenía.”

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