Some of the best ideas I’ve ever heard from eager young entrepreneurs never seem to see the light of day. There’s plenty of passion at the beginning of these conversations. The energy and enthusiasm are there. But as time passes, their interest in making it happen dissipates, momentum fades, and at that point, for many of these folks, it’s on to the next great idea or “story.” Selling futures is always easier than dealing with realities. It’s also a lot cheaper and demands less work.
And, in fairness, you can only tell the same story to the same people so many times before they stop listening and you run out of breath. Passion is great, but it’s no substitute for an actual plan. Intensity is like using a lot of salt and seasoning on cheap food. It helps to hide a lack of preparation and proficiency, but it won’t change hamburger into haute cuisine.
I thought that I understood everything there was to know about this “building a business” business: the classic, emotional peaks and valleys, the constant stream of higher hurdles and repeated rejections; the internal feelings of simple embarrassment; the anxiety of disappointing friends and loved ones. And the flat-out fear of failure. But you learn something new every day in the world of startups.
One of the things you eventually learn is that spending your days talking up your ideas and what you’re gonna do is a waste of time and breath. It’s a lot like talking back to the radio or TV: it may make you feel a little better, but it doesn’t change a thing. Woulda, shoulda, coulda gets you nowhere. Talking about running with the bulls has nothing to do with getting out there in the street and scrambling for your life and limbs. It’s important to believe in your idea– if you don’t, why should anyone else? But keep in mind that you can’t win a race with your mouth.
It’s really difficult for a lot of outsiders to understand and appreciate how hard it is (and has forever been) to get a new idea funded and off the ground– especially when it’s your first time around the track– and then to keep it up, alive, and moving forward until it becomes a successful, self-sustaining and reasonably respectable business. Building a business is tough, it’s painful and it’s lonely. Nothing starts out as a great idea (whatever you might have heard from those speaking with the benefit of hindsight) and without a lot of grunt work, blocking and tackling, and perseverance; there are no brilliant achievements or overnight successes.
In fact, one of the absolutely best things about being in a massive mega-incubator like 1871 is that you have the support, the mentors and resources, the regular reassurance, and the certain knowledge that there are hundreds of people surrounding you who are struggling through the exact same process and that some of them are at least as clueless about what’s coming next as you. (See 6 Reasons to Stay in the Incubator.)
Everyone also knows that a major downside to the startup life is that there are always plenty of people (sitting safely on the sidelines) who are willing and just waiting patiently for the chance to tell you why your idea won’t work or to offer a knowing “I told you so” after the fact. Tolerating the talking turkeys and the annoying know-it-alls is such a basic part of the journey that it’s almost a given these days and since we’re primed to expect it, it’s fairly easy to develop a thick enough skin to let this stuff just roll right off your back.
But what I never really appreciated is that the backslappers and supporters and cheerleaders — the people who seem to be totally on your side — can be just as damaging and destructive in some ways as the naysayers. If you’re not careful, their compliments can inadvertently encourage you to talk your idea to death. They’re just trying to be helpful and supportive and — as friends and families go in general — they mean well and they’re pretty enthusiastic listeners, but talking to them isn’t going to move the train down the track.
There are a couple of specific reasons to watch out for this type of time and energy sink.
First, they don’t actually know anything. I understand that everyone’s a consumer and a creator today and also an expert on new businesses, but here’s the thing about cheap applause: it’s okay to enjoy it just as long as you don’t quite believe it. Novices add nothing but noise to the critical conversations.
Second, there’s an infinite demand for the unavailable and people will tell you all day long that they’d be happy to buy your product or service “if only”– and here you can you can fill-in-the -blank. If only it came in a different size or color or it ran on Android or the batteries lasted forever. Boosters are miles away from buyers and, especially for a startup, only customers ultimately matter.
Third, these kinds of constant conversations really keep you in the dark. You can’t learn anything of consequence from anyone but a customer. In the long run, hearing the good and bad news right from the horse’s mouth is the only way to go. The upside of hearing the often painful truth is a lot greater than the comfort of remaining blissfully ignorant of the facts.
Bottom line. If you don’t break out of the bubble of babble and blandishments, and get busy in the real world, you can quickly run out of gas and oxygen and talk yourself out of business.
Walt Disney said it best a long, long time ago: “The way to get started is to quit talking and start doing.” If it worked out that well for that scrawny little mouse; just imagine what it can do for you.
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About the Author
Howard A. Tullman, CEO, 1871
Howard Tullman has over 45 years of start-up, management, IPO and turn-around experience and an extensive operations background in web development, online services, large-scale information assembly and delivery systems, database design and implementation and the development, creation and production of all types and formats of multimedia, computer games and audio/video digital content. He has designed and developed GUI and natural user interfaces, interactive and immersive games and instruction systems and other electronic entertainments, training products and services, as well as other information-based products and services in a variety of fields including automotive, insurance, CRM, employment, real estate, consumer goods and social media.
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