Startups, Jobs and Status Anxiety
I know there’s a mad rush to find the next hot “startup.” What worked in the past may not work well in the future and the mad startup rush is slowly changing where entrepreneurs are trying to build sustainable businesses rather than chasing fads. And here we are, chasing to build a business of our own and trust me, that entire process is damn hard. The downsides of the game are huge! Markets change, technology has diminishing returns, customers switch a lot, startup ideas commoditize. 31 guys have the same exact idea as yours.
There are some status quo issues associated with startups and the anxiety linked to the new world of jobs and work, is certainly not trying to dispel the myths. Potential startupreneurs need to pay heed to some amount of sound advice before starting up. Here are my views regarding this situation.
Startups are not end-all-be-all, a good job is one of the best ways to earn a living
Jobs pay the bills, some of us have good jobs — Even today, no matter how much the hype propagates, doing jobs is still the only way to generate primary incomes. The entire fascination with being the next nerd who changes the world with his idea is delusional. Also, there’s definitely no dearth of good jobs in the market provided you have the skills, attitude and hands-on work experience required for the role. Founding a startup just because you are bored in your well-paying corporate job will land you into trouble because startups are hard. Building a business from scratch will be the hardest thing you will do in your entire life. The opportunity cost rises exponentially if you don’t have your own Plan ‘Z’ and startups become hard due to dual-attack of not having enough paying customers plus rising costs to sustain in business.
Good jobs in established companies might just be what is required to live a good life — There are at least 50 companies in your sector where you can take a good, well-paying, reputed job and still do much better than a VC-funded startup founder with almost no down-side. To live a good life, people crave for some space in operating their own work and general guidance/administration for course correction. Startups can get lonely with you being the person who calls the shots, which most of the times will backfire. Established companies give you credibility, networks, relationships, salary-based addiction, and comfort. Trade-off is always speed, learning, action.
Startups don’t make you a shit ton of money till 3–4 years (even if you survive) — The mad rush of VC investments in India in 2015–16 was compensated by the snail pace of VC funding in the next 5 quarters. It was so bad last year, it was mind-effing-ly crazy. See, VCs invest to take their money from x to 10x in 3–5 years by riding on your wave and hope to achieve venture scale returns. They want to exit their fund, give back to their investors and get on with their life, raise another fund, deploy, earn 2%, take cuts if a sizeable exit is there. It’s these little bets that helps them generate good returns for their partners. They don’t love you. How can they? They are in their well-paying, stressful jobs. So, if you are funded by a VC, it will quickly become an uphill task to generate more traction on every $ invested vis-à-vis dilution of the founder stock. Survival, then, is not the prize but a slow demise.
Startups are hard, there’s nothing cool with the founder tag
Founding experience is awesome — You just get to know so much about everything. Sales, marketing, finance, product, customer experience, UI design, funding, burn rates, fixed costs, resource allocation, technology, timelines, plans, pitch, market research, competitive analysis, differentiation, client meetings, channel development etc. Also, if you build something from scratch, you are practically ahead of the curve. It substantially becomes easier to understand business in general and contribute value in new ventures and operatives. Trust me, the entire experience of generating any form of new economic activity is a thrill in itself. But, it will take every ounce of energy from you. Sometimes being the founder also involves the most amount of work, not less. Be it grunt, mental or emotional.
All that brain activity — The amount of brain activity that you will have while you are building your own gig will be difficult to handle at first. The sheer amount of work that needs to be done while you are building your business from scratch will look like an insurmountable task (and it is). But you will get used to the pressure; then that’s the only level of pressure you want to have while you are working or you will surely get annoyed (I do). Your brain will run on insane levels of serotonin and any good work would throw in some dopamine. It feels awesome, no doubt about that.
Startup success or failure is generally attributed to you — As a founder, you are responsible for the startup doing well and not doing well. Regardless of the result, startup success or failure not a true reflection of you as a person, employee or manager. Startups fail because either they don’t find enough paying customers or fail to evade competition altogether. Sometimes, both will happen at the same time. Have a good sense of the market in which you are operating and keep navigating. Sometimes, being passively offensive is the best strategy.
Beware of the myth that having a startup makes you cool
You are most probably uninformed — you pursue an idea because you believe in it and all good ideas take time to kick-off. Even dumb ideas take time to prove they are dumb. They will require blood, sweat, money, management, time, setbacks. It will feel cool for 2 days and then you might panic because shit gets real. You are uninformed.
Now it’s an engineering college fad — I receive a lot of job offers where still-to-graduate candidates say that they are “Founder/CEO” at their own 1-person ‘startup.’ What does this even mean? Till the time you are not pursuing the activity full-time as a career move, these designations don’t matter. Designations don’t matter till your startup starts achieving product-market fit. It’s all an experiment that sometimes works, rarely gets funded. Very rarely gets VC funding, statistically speaking. Feel free to update your LinkedIn profiles with the founder tag but, as I said before, not a true reflection of you as an employee. Unless your startup is not being pursued as a full-time opportunity, nobody falls for the gimmick.
You still can’t take over the world — In all probability your friends hate you, your ex-colleagues don’t care about you, your mom doesn’t even know what you are doing with your life (my mom knows) —in short, you will not take ver the world. It’s a mildly confusing feeling to be your own boss but your strings will be pulled hard by investors for results. You will think you were better off in that job where you had just 2 hours of actual work and 6 hours of perception management. Here, it will be 24 hours of actual work and world will create a perception about you.
Corporate entrepreneurship is the way to go
There’s a new breed of entrepreneurs — corporate entrepreneurs, driving entire business units, geographies, product lines, lines of businesses, practice areas etc. I have immense respect for them. These guys are strategic, methodical, disciplined and work with military-level business acumen. You will learn entrepreneurship better and way faster through picking the mind of such people. Find such mentors who can coach you unabashedly. I have one. It’s important to find mentors when you are young.
Startups may or may not give you the entrepreneurial freedom you want or deserve — corporates have started to become nimble and fast-moving. You can expect yourself to work in entrepreneurial environments without the downside of running your own business. And that is how it should have been in the first place. The loss of intellectual capital as people leave organizations cannot be replaced easily. Technology can’t replace actual human thought and action. Startups may not be humdrum of all economic activity.
The new world of work will favor corporates more than startups themselves — Startups are primarily built for achieving rapid growth before the actual company building process but corporates might give you the same experience with established rules and culture with entrepreneurial agility to drive new ventures and business growth. ‘Nuff said.
Learn to work without detachment on your business idea
Passion might be painful, detached rationality is the way to build a winning startup — Great startups start off as something else and become something else in their quest to grow. If you are passionate about your business idea, it will get painful. Be like water. Fluid, flexible. Take the shape of the container (market) your startup (water) is poured into. Detach yourself from idea of winning or losing; you will then be able to run the damn thing for your own benefit.
Your emotions will waver a lot if you are on the journey — good things take time. Your drive as an entrepreneur is linked to your emotional intelligence. Capital is one piece of the puzzle, but in reality, YOU will get spent way faster than your capital. Learn to recharge, re-learn stuff and detach from your work often.
You might face a lot of idea-downplaying by your peers, potential investors — and that’s cool. You see what they can’t see and as I said even dumb ideas take time. Unsolicited advice, why my idea would fail, why I can’t change market perception et cetera et cetera. I get this all the time! Frankly, I don’t care about it. I didn’t care about it even when AutoO2 was founded. I just do stuff which I feel will be huge in the future. I throw everything at a problem, and try to find solutions to solve it.
But, without skipping a beat, starting up has been an experience in itself. A topsy, turvy ride to build AutoO2 and now scaling it; the entire experience has been crazily unique. Professionally, I feel I have grown 10x in the past year. It’s like those mandatory military enlisting that every manager or a leader should undergo early in their professional lives. No amount of startup books, Zero to One, Plato at the Googleplex, 5 Ways to Raise Startup Funding, Do You Know Your Design Sucks etc. can help you make an economic activity out of thin air. You have to go through it, even if you are alone, you have to do it. It’s pure hustle. Are you game?