Last year I quit Google to explore startup ideas with a few friends. Last week I accepted an offer to join Flexport as a software engineer. What follows are some of the things I learned along the way about myself and startups.
Successful startups solve problems. There are two types of problems:
- Your own problems
- Other people’s problems
These aren’t mutually exclusive, but during pre-product exploration, day-to-day work as a generalist founder varies considerably depending on which type of problem you pursue.
#1 involves reflecting on your own needs/wants/curiosities, building things to satisfy them, then seeking out similar people to see if they’d benefit too. You can create problems for yourself by working toward goals (make X, sell Y, learn Z) and noticing what’s difficult along the way.
#2 involves either (a) well-defined consulting engagements or (b) hands-on market research: structured hypothesis generation, reaching out to possible customers, interviews and shadowing, pitching ideas.
What I found is that in the incubation stage (1) and (2a) require spaciousness that’s difficult to justify in the context of venture growth expectations and that (2b) is not enjoyable for me absent a specific goal.
“I do not believe that you should devote overly much effort to correcting your weaknesses. Rather, I believe that the highest success in living and the deepest emotional satisfaction comes from building and using your signature strengths.” — Dr. Martin Seligman, positive psychology pioneer
The projects I’ve enjoyed most have all centered around (1). Basically, art and developer tooling. Examples include my apartment, Burning Man art, Chrome dev tools, and Earth Engine, of which I was both a developer and a user. Each afforded me substantial flow in the moment and a sense of pride in retrospect.
Projects centered around (2a) are also fun when I’m passionate about the problems and have an unambiguous relationship with the users, e.g. when we are on the same team. I experienced some of this on Chrome and Earth Engine. I expect my work at Flexport to fit in here. I’ve been interested in physical infrastructure automation for many years.
When I think about people and projects that inspire me, I’m drawn to those who began by building for themselves and then discovered a vein of value that resonated more widely. Sometimes these projects end up growing into large companies. Sometimes not.
Non-startup examples include Elm, a programming language created by my former roommate Evan; Onsen, a gorgeous Japanese restaurant and spa in my neighborhood; Roll & Hill, a high-end lighting designer and manufacturer. They started from #1 and honed in on a sustainable intersection of #1 and #2.
Venture-backed examples include Apple, Facebook, Stripe, Airbnb. Their founding stories may be somewhat apocryphal, but, from what I gather, in each case the founders started by building something to solve a problem that they themselves had experienced, and things grew organically from there.
“Airbnb was never meant to be the big idea. It was meant to be the thing to pay the rent so we could think of the big idea. Along the way, by solving our problem it became the big idea.” — Joe Gebbia
Similarly, Earth Engine and related teams at Google were started when our founder Rebecca Moore solved her own problems protecting the forests near her house.
My life strategy continues to roughly follow the simulated annealing algorithm I alluded to in my previous post. Flexport is a fast-growing company where I hope to experience a combination of the best parts of the last few months and my time at Google. Also, the office is a 12-minute walk from my apartment!
Erik and Christina are continuing to explore (2b) together, and I wish them the best of luck.
I remain curious about one day starting my own financially sustainable project. I find great pleasure in making physical things, especially lighting. Once I’ve settled into a rhythm at Flexport, I may try to launch Kickstarters for a few of my ideas. I find the Lumio story particularly inspiring. You can see some of my work thus far on maxheinritz.com.
That’s about all. Hope this helps anyone considering similar decisions — happy to chat more about any of this.
See you on the path!