When your startup is your “baby,” it’s time for a reality check
If you’ve ever worked in startups or know anything about them, you’ve likely come across that founder who refers to his startup as a baby. Here’s why that line of thinking dangerous.
I don’t have a baby, nor do I have a startup per se. I have, however, seen a lot of babies, worked with a lot of babies, and seen a lot of mothers and their babies. With startups, I have worked and been a part of multiple startups, some from the ground up, and I have seen enough startups from the inside out (and outside in) to say this: when you begin referring to your startup as your “baby” or any other nomenclature echoing that sentiment, it’s time for a nice serving of reality. Guess what? It’s going to taste like shit at first.
You might even reject the first few bites of reality someone offers you. Most of these people I’m referring to are first time founders, which is understandable. Yes, there is the occasional serial entrepreneur/founder who just doesn’t seem to get it (we’ve all read about them or come across their LinkedIn profiles), but usually, this is costly mistake made by first time founders.
Also, I’d just like to point out that there is a difference between founders who refer to their startup as their baby and founders who refer to their team as family. Make no mistake. There’s a clear difference between idolizing your business like a new human life form, and valuing the human beings who devote most of their waking hours to your startup as tribesmen (or women).
So, what is so wrong about a founder identifying and seeing their startup as their “baby”? First and foremost, when a founder refers to their startup as such, you know that they’ve lost perspective. They’ve become so close to their newfound business that they cannot not even see the forest, they can’t even see the trees! Yikes. Let’s all run for the hills.
Let’s explore this point further. No mother or father ever thinks their baby is ugly. There may be a few of you rare unicorns who have a dark sense of humor and a good enough head on your shoulders to identify cute babies from not-so cute ones, but for the most part, most parents, especially first-time parents think that their baby is the MOST BEAUTIFUL THING TO HAVE EVER GRACED THE EARTH. Much like first-time parents, first-time founders often think that their creation is the most beautiful thing to have ever graced humanity. “My technology is truly disruptive”, “this is going to change the world”, “how can you not invest in this idea?”. I can think of a few hundred reasons.
When founders think that their startup is like their baby and the most beautiful thing ever to have existed, they lose their ability to see flaws in their business, themselves (this is the worst), and their plan. Worst yet, they lose their ability and willingness to hear out criticism without getting defensiveness or offended. They can’t see any other view other than their’s, and unless your opinion agrees with their’s, you’re wrong. Anything you say against the startup, product, or idea is you saying something against them personally. This means that very few improvements will be made, if any, ever. This means a long series of uphill verbal and mental battles between you and your founder. This means a breakdown in relationships, which is the a guaranteed recipe for failure. Shall we sprint for the hills now?
Don’t get me wrong, there are founders and CEOs out there who care deeply for their company. These are not the types of people I’m criticizing. The key difference between the deeply-caring camp and the this-is-my-baby camp is that the deeply-caring folks put their employees and their own sanity first. The this-is-my-baby type of founder cares about realizing their vision at any and all costs, even if it means scorching a ton of bridges and pushing everyone away. I’ve heard founders say of key employees “She just doesn’t get it, and there are plenty of other fish in the sea.” There are plenty of other fish in the sea, but in the world of startups, the sea is rather small when it comes to true talent, skill, and dedication. When you start thinking people are disposable like that, you’ve lost perspective. Get a reality check. People are not disposable. Key employees who are willing to spend more time working on your idea, your startup than they do with their own partners or families are hard to come by. They are gems, not trash. They’ve bought into your vision. You should be working to understand how you can improve each day and each experience for them at your company. Instead of casting them aside for “lack of commitment” or other baseless excuses, why not try to understand how such a committed employee came to this point (of wanting to leave)? Conner Fisher in his piece “Failing startup checklist” explains that the inability to retain top talent is a red flag.Treat your employees like a joke, they’ll leave you like it’s funny.
The last point I’d like to make is this: remember, a startup is a fledgling business. And a business is a business. A business is not a living, breathing human being. The experience of running and working on your startup may make you feel alive, but the business itself is not alive. Your startup and your job may be demanding just a baby might be, but let’s be honest, if you don’t “feed” your startup over night, is it really going to die? The answer is no. And if you can’t answer this question correctly, you need a reality check. Your startup does not breathe, it does not love, it does not care about you. It may pay you and your employees a nice check, it may provide material comforts, and it may make you feel accomplished. But! You know what is alive and what does actually care about you? Your employees. Your family. Your partner. You. Running a startup can give you such a deep sense of fulfillment — I know that, but that type of fulfillment has its limits. And you should have your’s.
Closing thoughts: perspective (especially when it comes to building businesses) is what helps us see new paths, new solutions, new problems. Not taking our business as seriously as we do a human life makes you human and real, not weak and stupid → I’ve known a founder who believed the inverse of this (ahhhhhh!!!). And always remember, we build businesses to better human lives, not to replace them.