Being a tech founder isn’t what you’d expect. In fact, I think one of the main causes of failed startups is not in idea nor implementation- it’s bad founders. The reasoning for this is simple: being a startup founder is the new American Dream and the field is therefore saturated by well-intending idiots. Current society has seen the rise of self made “overnight millionaires”, with the resulting influx of tech entrepreneurs around the turn of the century. Despite the early 2000’s dot com bubble, large startups like Google, Facebook, and Twitter have seen massive IPO’s. Startups made in college dorms or parent’s basements can see multi-million dollar valuations over night; often accompanied by billion dollar acquisition offers. Even without the appeal of potential massive success, the idea of “working for yourself”, “leaving the 9–5” and “Grabbing your life by the horns” is the new trend amongst just about everyone. Best of all the barrier of entry is overtly low, any Average Joe can attempt a startup and maybe become the next Peter Thiel. Gone are the days of Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are the new idols of our generation. The startup founder is the new rockstar.
Unfortunately, the harsh reality of startups is far from the majestic story that is sold to the masses. People are forgoing traditional or conservative jobs that offer reliable paychecks, in return for a life which does not require a specified and constricting work schedule or dress-code. They are soon surprised however, finding themselves unprepared when they encounter the real world of startups. A 9–5 workday is quickly replaced with a 24/7 on call position with no nights or weekends off. It is not uncommon to work 80–90+ hours a week, and still have more work than you can handle. In response to relinquishing the luxury and stability of a bi-monthly income, people are learning how to get-by on Ramen Noodles and co-habitation living spaces. The anxiety to complete a project by a specific deadline is multiplied by the knowledge that failure can result in detrimental consequences not just for yourself, but for everyone involved. Your co-founders, investors and employees, for whom you are professionally and economically responsible, are dependent on you and failure will result in a much worse repercussion than a slap on the wrist by your boss. The dreams told of the glory and majesty that accompany running a startup are often quickly dashed- and those of faint heart or who are risk averse, often seem to fail quickly.
That’s not to say that a companies failure is a sign of a bad startup founder. I think I would venture to say that the more one fails- the better of a founder they are, as they display preserverance and have the ability to learn from all their mistakes.
It is my opinion that, more often than not, founders are born rather than created. Risk-laden intricacies are as a part of a successful startup as the innovation itself. This phenomenon allows for an intrinsic psychological barrier of entry to exist hidden in plain view. Those who are naturally prepared to put in the hard work and stomach the stresses of the startup world can bypass this barrier in two ways both of which are highlighted in the AirBNB startup story.
The first is the insistent and overwhelming drive to succeed. No matter what curve ball is thrown their way, a true founder will push through until the promised lands loom from the darkness. Brian Chensky of AirBNB lived on ramen and borrowed credit card loans for years, while struggling to launch AirBNB. The second way startup founders like Chensky overcome this barrier is through innovation and “hacking”. A true founder will innately have the business sense and knowledge to succeed and support him or herself in roundabout ways throughout the continuation of the startup journey. For some startup founders this is conning investors into investing large sums with high valuations. Chensky’s, with the former plan impossible, chose to capitalize on the 2008 elections, selling cereal boxes named “Obama-o’s” and “Mccain Crunch”. In another word, two of the most useful tools a founder can have are perseverance and the ability to adapt or “hack”. I wish to start outlining on medium my adventures and the lessons I learned throughout my years operating in this industry.
While the startup world is riddled with immeasurable and unexplainable amounts of stress, failure, and hard work, there is a breed of people who flourish in these contexts. Similar to how an adrenaline junkie chases danger, a successful startup founder chases the impossible and takes risks that no one else would be stupid (or perhaps clever) enough to take. I’m not entirely sure this is a good thing either. In my classes at General Assembly I often suggest thinking about startups as a vice rather than a career path. Usually, only those so obsessed with startups that they start one, knowing it will probably fail, are the ones to stick with it long enough to succeed. Additionally, I think this is a healthy outlook which allows one to accept failure as a path to success rather than something ‘embaressing’ or bad. I think this all speaks to the ‘impulsiveness’ of — what I see — the archetype of the succesfull founder. It is this impulsive nature and consistent propensity to take risks that, when perhaps coupled with a dubious moral turpitude, leads entrepreneurs into the wild world of successes, failures, and a rollercoaster of experiences that make up “The startup Journey”.
Stay tuned for the next installmant of The Startup Journey: Hacking the Mindset of a Hacker