Startups: Are they RomComs or Horror Stories?

About this series of ramblings

Chris Nurse
Mar 11, 2019 · 8 min read

The ramblings of a Constantly Inspired Technology Leader have gained popularity among Startup Founders, a community in Australia for which I’m known to be a passionate advocate. So this week I’m reaching out to would-be founders with some frank views and advice.

In the last 35 years, I’ve built and worked for many Startups. As a movie lover I thought I’d use the metaphors of Romantic Comedy (RomCom) and Horror Movies (the scariest of all categories), to explain to my younger self what lays ahead. Oh yes, if you’ve read the previous articles then you already know that I’m preparing to time travel…my previous articles: Mission One / Mission Two / Mission Three

Startups: RomComs?

Despite being a large-sized, beer drinking, burping Yorkshireman I am drawn to the occasional RomCom. Possibly more the Com (-edy) part, as I do love a good laugh.

When I see founders, it feels like watching a RomCom, watching someone fall in love with their idea, dream of the future, bursting with hope and optimism, and so eager to evangelize their vision for “a better world” (watch Silicon Valley).

It’s human nature to wake-up brimming with ideas and feel that they are all million-dollar businesses, or that each idea could transform the world we live in. Ideas make us feel visionary, inspired and motivated, so no wonder we jump out of bed and immediately try to build a Startup. Every emotional nerve in our body is telling us to get up and get on with it.

Startups feel romantic. Startups feel like falling in love!

In the Dog House? There’s an App for That, Almost!

So that’s the Romance, where’s the Comedy ingredient? A friend shared a conversation with me recently, about an app idea which his mate described as being for guys who are “in the dog house with the missus”, i.e. “can I sleep on your couch tonight mate?!”

We laughed so much as we explored all the possible scenarios that this app could be used for. The business model, the kinds of upgrades that you could offer, the different membership levels etc. It was fun and funny!

I think ideas like this are funny, but, they so relatable, which is why it wouldn’t surprise me if a real business lay in that crazy idea.

After tears of joy comes…

Tears of frustration, anger, fear, disappointment…I’ve seen them all in clients or people that I’ve advised and counselled. Sometimes the reality of life as a Startup is horrific.

Many Startups have gone from RomCom to Horror Movie in a flash. There is an intermediate level called Drama — someone has an idea, thinks they can go straight to pitch it to an investor, and gets told it’s not investible, but all that happens in this movie is your ego gets a bit of a bump. Many investors won’t part with money unless you can prove that you have paying customers .

But, meh! Don’t worry, a few cuts and bruises… you’ll be Ok.

Anyhow, back to our axe-wielding, blood curdling Startup scenario. You’re already tired of hearing about how Appster went bust, founders, especially young people, lost their money.

Well, the same happened to a friend of mine, when his Melbourne based app development company went bust. He struggled for months to get the source code for his app.

More months went by before the new team (who bought the old company from the receivers) would commit to finish his project.

It did get finished, but my friend had to survive one year without income, and still had to continue to invest in his business, which couldn’t operate until the app was complete. Could you survive this situation?

I don’t need to explain what happens in an axe-wielding horror movie, so in Startup horror movies, I don’t need to tell you more than when things go wrong, people can lose their homes, families, friends, life savings and dignity.

In horror movies the bad guys usually come to a sticky end themselves. The people who rip-off Startups just seem to move on and make money elsewhere.

Did you see any news of the Appster guys living on the streets? Nah, me neither!

Founders are in business not Startups

I’m really comfortable talking about founders, startups, minimal viable products and all that wanky stuff. It’s my job. I’m successful at it.

But Founders / Startups, often don’t realise that they are in “business”. In some places there is no recognition in law for “Startup”. You can be sued, closed down, have your assets taken away and…

“Your honor I had no idea…”

This just won’t cut it! No idea what?

…that I was supposed to have a limited liability company, professional indemnity, workers compensation, had to pay superannuation and GST…

…that clause 3(a)(ii)of the contract meant we would end up here today because my customer doesn’t love me anymore…

…I had no idea I could be sued…I’m not a business, I’m a Startup! I’m the future!!!!!

Tell consumers that you’re a Startup, that your product might not do what it says on the box, that someone might loose their money, maybe get hurt…and please don’t sue…you’re a founder with an idea to change the world. Lots of things can go wrong, which you will have to try to endure.

Horror stories get real, real quick. So understanding the game you’re getting in to means you go in eyes wide open, not Eyes Wide Shut.

It’s simple, just think like you’re a business, not a trendy Startup. Oh sure, innovation and lean startup blah blah, don’t “build it and they will come zzzzzz”, business model canvas, kanban and Minimum Viable Product (wavey lines and flashing stars)… I know, I know, you’re a Startup (violins and beautiful music)…

Let’s say, “MVP, AGILE, PIVOT, VALIDATE, EXIT, 10X and SERVERLESS ARCHITECTURE”, at least ten times each hour.

When you cut through all that, the co-working space where you sit at your desk wants to get paid. When you can’t pay they want to know why. When you don’t pay, they won’t be nice about it. When your friend who invested knocks on your door and expects their “share of the 10x exit” and doesn’t get it, the friendship can end there. When your customers pay up front and your deadline slips six months…the phone won’t stop ringing.

As soon as you want to sign a contract with another business you’re a business. As soon as co-workers enter your work space, you’re an Employer. When customers pay, you’re a Supplier, and so on.

All I’m Saying is…

Learn to be a professional and expect to become a business person. You don’t need an MBA, you don’t need a degree in finance, but you do need to get advice and talk to and listen to people who’ve done this stuff before. I mean talk in detail, not just go to a meetup or have a warm fuzzy chat. Get educated. Get prepared. Speak with people who will challenge all of your beliefs, logic and assumptions.

And now, to my Favorite Question…

A common need for Startups is technology and Apps. To be honest, I’ve had to teach myself to be patient when asked a very common question, and if we re-frame the question you will quickly see where this is going.

Buyer: “I’m looking for a house, how much is one of those?”

Sales Person: “How many bedrooms, how many parking spaces, how big is the block, is it one storey, or two storey, how many bathrooms, do you want an en-suite, are you looking on the coast, by the river or near the landfill site? Do you need a school near by, what about public transport, are you building new or buying an existing house, etc. etc. etc…”

“How much is an app for that?”, is the version I’m confronted with…

Buyer: “(phone rings)…Hello! I’ve got an idea… how much is an app for that?”

Chris: “Deep breath, do you want iPhone, Android, Web, is the data subject to laws like credit and health information, how many languages do your users speak, what currencies can people use to pay, how many transactions per hour do you expect, how many hours per year can the system be offline for? Do you want virtual reality, block-chain, augmented reality, crypto-currency, machine learning, artificial intelligence, chat-bots perhaps? Do you want to connect with Google Home, Siri, Amazon Echo? Mmmm I’m not sure, but I’m thinking around $50 million dollars to build this :) When can I start?”

Buyer: “(click)…”

I think that being smart means asking a question and knowing how to equip someone to give you a great answer.

In order to learn how to ask, “how much is an App for that?” , you could attend one of my workshops, like the one I ran in January 2019: View on Eventbrite.

Register your interest for the next one: Contact Chris @ NamSource

In Summary

I feel exhausted just reading this myself, so you might feel shell shocked.

But I needed to get this off of my chest. People go into Startups with their eyes closed and so little knowledge. Things go wrong more often than they go right. Just look at the infographic below.

80% of the projects I do are rescuing people from difficult (sometimes horrible) situations. The truth is, I love doing it, because I love to help, I love to turn bad news into great news, and I love to feel trusted enough that when someone has been let down, they know I will go the distance to get them over the finish line.

These statistics are concerning, and clearly people need to wake-up and face the truth and leave the romance and buzzwords behind, because they mean nothing in law, or business, or probably even in real-life.

We have to confront the truth, learn how to prepare for the Startup journey, because we’re not all lucky enough to “figure things out along the way” and “get away with flying by the seat of our pants”.

Frankly, sometimes our customers are going to get really pissed off! Some of them will even try and take us to court.

“Your honor, I didn’t know…”, doesn’t cut it. So if you’re a Founder, or want to be, then understand you’re in the business of Startups.

I have more to say on this subject, but, I’ll divulge that next time!

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