Despite What You’ve Heard, Running a Startup is Not That Hard

Trying to save a burning building, now that’s hard.

The United States was built on the back of small business. Big companies only get big after they’ve been small. In fact, much of North America’s world dominance can be traced back to entrepreneurism and the innovation that sprouted from it. Why then is there such a strong undercurrent of pessimism against small businesses and startups?

Every day I read tweets or blog posts from a startup founder or CEO complaining about how hard it is to run a startup. The long hours, the late nights, the endless work, the difficulty in convincing investors to give you MILLIONS of dollars. Two of the more notable personalities in the startup world (Paul Graham and Marc Andreessen) say it too. Additionally, there is common refrain of how difficult it is to be successful with a startup and how the failure rate is so high (which I debunked in an earlier post). Let’s make it seem so hard no one wants to do it!

There are few white collar occupations that we talk about being so difficult. You don’t hear about how hard it is to be a veterinarian, scientist or politician. But startup CEO, that’s hard.

It’s hard in what sense of the word? Sure, long days can contribute to fatigue that make things physically and emotionally challenging, but how is that different from many (or most) jobs?

After high school I worked at a sock factory for a short time. It involved working long days in a hot, sweaty building. I worked with guys that drank booze behind the building during lunch and wanted to arm wrestle for money. Then there was the summer I installed insulation in new homes. You’re suppose to wear a mask when handling fiberglass insulation, but the guys I worked with didn’t care about that. They breathed it in and had raspy coughs to go with it. It was as hot as an oven especially when wearing a mask, and it wasn’t fun crawling around with snakes. To me, that seemed hard.

But when people say startups are hard, they are talking about mentally hard, not physically hard, right? What I think of as mentally hard is waking up every day to a corporate job that makes me sick with apathy because the projects are so mundane and uninteresting that you spend half your time surfing the web just to stave off boredom. How about trying to get motivated to do a big presentation on a topic you don’t really care about to a group of people that don’t really care about it either only to find out at the end that your project is #11 on the list so in 2–3 years you may get some resources to work on it.

I know I may get shamed for this by my CEO friends, but I don’t find the life of a startup harder than many other jobs I could be doing. I’m not saying that NOT HARD = EASY. I’ve never said the job is easy, and there are some aspects (e.g. firing employees) which downright suck. It’s absolutely challenging, but that’s not a bad thing. That’s one of the primary benefits of the job. It’s like a big, multifaceted puzzle. People are too quick to use how hard it is as a scapegoat for why they should quit or why things aren’t going perfectly. Maybe it’s just a puzzle they can’t figure out.

The #1 controllable success factor for smart people succeeding with a startup is just sticking with it. If you don’t love at least some aspect of the thing you are working on, you likely won’t stay in the game long enough to be successful. When I read posts about startups being so hard, I think those people are close to the end of their rope just like I was when I started complaining about how hard it was working at a big company.

Coming in to an office every day that I helped select with a group of employees I helped hire on projects I approved feels like a little piece of heaven. Yes, there are parts to running a company that aren’t fun and I don’t enjoy as much, but in the grand scheme that’s the cost of doing business and far from the days of arm wrestling drunk guys for money.