Founding a f*ck up
I’ve written a couple of times about my journey as a startup founder. This article focuses on the feeling of the journey, particularly when things are not going to plan.
There are thousands of blogs written about “how I made $xxx in XXminutes as a 19 year old founder”. But there often seems to be a lack of content on how being a founder is sometimes, f**king horrible. To date, there are only a few things I’ve found that come close to describing it:
- Ben Horowitz's— The Hard Thing About Hard Things (link is to a summary)
- Mark Suster’s blog Entreprenuersh*t
- Brad Feld’s blog Something new is f*cked up in my world every day
This is my attempt to add to the “founder-realism” movement…
So you’re building a startup. You’ve said it out loud to hundreds of people, posted it on social media, emailed investors, written a deck, hacked an MVP.
The conviction is there. The plan is coming together. Users are pre-registering. So you are out into the money market to dance for money.
You are selling yourself, your vision, your traction. You are bullish about you. Blue lasers push out of your eyes every time you load PowerPoint.
Nobody wants to hear doubt. Not the voices in your head, not your investors, not the new hires you’re convincing. They all feed on your exuded confidence. The circle-jerk is firing on all cylinders.
The money has cleared. You screenshot the bank balance and WhatsApp it to your significant other. The press is already lined up. You talk about the plans. “We are building something special…” you say. “We are going to be a big team doing important work”. Everyone nods in unison.
But in the back of your head there is a twitch. A knot. A niggle.
You fed the investment machine your ego. You gave it a promise of exit multiples. You claimed to know the future. You know you lied. But everyone must know that you can’t predict the future?! They must know…
But the press comes out. #entrepreneur #growth #NoDoubt #NotHere #Nope. You’re tagged now. It’s in the algorithms. Block-chained into the fabric of the internet. It’s $500,000 more than any of your mates has been given by strangers, to mess around in a shed. You are made. If you don’t succeed with this, then what kind of idiot are you?!
Sleeves are rolled. Desks are bolted. The pot plants are all new and flourishing. The team locks in around you. The Trello boards and Slack channels fill with bustle and :bantz emoji:.
The first pivot. It’s not that the plan isn’t working.It’s that the plan would work a lot better if it was… different. You push confidence out of your eyes, dark blue laser light bathes the office. Everyone is convinced. This is right.
Sure, you burnt some cash. Yes, you sunk most of it into a product that doesn’t work. But you have insights. Everyone knows that insights are the fuel for building rocket ships. You lock the insights into a deck and carry them around. 10 slides that can deflect bullets. 10 slides of pure nodding. Blue lasers set to “enthuse”.
The investors are on board too. Asking for copies. Pushing out to their network. Hooking in ole’ buddies to fill your funnel. All conversations are positive. 10 slides of pure nodding. Blue lasers set to “buy”.
The team is all in. Except, some of them are out. Some lured by larger bangs and bigger bucks. Some burnt by uncertainty. The runway is shorter. But you turn the blue lasers on to those who ask. “I am all in on this…” you say. This is true. You are more than all in.
But at the bottom of your bed is a twitching foot. It’s powered by spreadsheets. By contracts closing and staff expectations. By your own expectations. You breathe it away. Let sounds come to you from the night. Eventually, sleep.
On weeknights, the events rack up. Your face is known on the scene. “New product, new market”. “We have learned so much in the last 6 months”. “Let's chat about partnerships over a coffee”. Blue lasers. Cheap red wine & nibbles. *Foot twitch*. Candles are burnt at every end.
There’s a small bit of it on the edge of the bowl. You knew it was coming. So you had time to prepare. In fact, it’s been building for weeks. You could say, that this vomit, was a lifetime in the making.
The round will close eventually. Wipe your face and fix it. There are harder things about harder things. You have to close the round.
Delays for this kind of thing are inevitable. Especially when traction is weak. But you promised everyone you’d build this company, so that’s what you do. You dance for the money. You 10-slide deck yourself to each handshake. Just the blue lasers have started to cost more to turn on.
There are flaws everywhere too. Not fatal. Just little cuts. Sapping cuts, leaking cash. The product isn’t quite right. There are better options in the market. You need to cut the burn rate. Looking back on old management accounts makes the opulence clear. All the pot plants died anyway. All the non-important stuff was nailed first. Just that last bit to fix. The business.
The early investors are still in. They invested in you. You, you, you. That’s where the buck stops. That’s who has to fix it. Take a slice of me and stand in line.
The foot twitch has moved to a corner of your eye. It’s more frequent than it used to be. You have to concentrate to stop it. Like swallowing hiccups.
It’s less fun being known on the scene now.
<smile>“Are you doing another pivot?” </smile>
<smile>“… what do you actually do?”</smile>
<smile>*whispers*“… why are you carrying on?” </smile>
You say, “It’s been a tough learning experience. I haven’t enjoyed all of it”. But nobody wants your bad news. Employees, investors, peers, press. Everyone addicted to measuring the scale, the speed, the hyperbole. The round closes, but smaller. Shrunk by lagging debts.
You grow envious and weary of your past self. The 10 slide decks are trite. These aren’t really insights. They’re just nice slides. A big sale drops, at the final hurdle. It takes a month to admit the obvious.
You call a meeting.
Not the End
Cutting people is probably harder on your ego than them. You are no longer a “good person”. Everyone is released to go do things in “proper” businesses. As they go, you feel the difference.
A few remain. This is not the wide-eyed, big-mouthed startup you once founded. This is something… grittier.
“Insights”, are replaced with experience. Slide decks become qualifying questions. Burn rate is minimal. The runway is long.
The minimum viable product is now really minimum, and actually viable. Features that used to litter the roadmap for months are either built or deleted.
The press hyperboles over the latest big investment round. You read the founders quotes with a vague sense of deja vu. When you bump into them on the scene, you fervently tell them to “keep burn low, till you get traction”. They smile without really listening.
People ask “How big is your team now?”.When you answer honestly it takes them aback. Those who know, smile and nod understanding. You don’t need to turn on the lasers for anyone now. You don’t promise to know the future. There is “talking about doing it” and “doing it”. There’s less time for talking.
The bit after it wasn’t the end
The second wind dies down and the sails slacken to an even pace. Work is done. You feel good when it is. But this is not a sprint, it’s the marathon. Pick up feet, put down feet, enjoy the feeling.
Learning is slower. Consultancy revenue begins to replace the bread and butter. You eat contracts to keep going.
Technology platforms are built, but traction does not. The market was wrong, the product was wrong, the team was wrong. The mistakes from mile 0 still wobble you on mile 20.
You weren’t that wrong. But wrong by an inch or a mile is still wrong. Startups are such finely balanced machines. Like Formula1 engines. Fast, or on fire.
People in big companies don’t get it, the domino effect. If you don’t fill the funnel, to sell the tech, to bring the revenue, to hire the developer, to build the product to fill the funnel to close the round. You’re dead. Dead 5 months before you stop moving, but still dead. Like putting sugar in a fuel tank.
The actual end
The weariness of being “where the buck stops” takes it’s toll. The buck has stopped with an exhale. Not a sad one. But one of resignation. Maths is math. The runway is the runway. It’s almost relieving to let it go.
It’s said of some startups: “When they drove off the cliff, there weren’t any skid marks”. But, you want there to be “mortgage and a kid” sized skid marks. However, giving money back, is almost more painful than running out. Running out would be neater. Emotionally and financially. Giving back requires a split, more conversation, more cutting apart the reasons. An ocean of salt in the wound.
You walk through the world happy, but with a fear of an “I told you so” from the impolite. We lost a lot of good companies out there. All you built was a statistic.
But the days pass and the sun comes up each morning. You have reflections on your learning, over slowly drunk flat-whites. What started as a muddy puddle of naivety, is now a huge lake of experience. You can share it, swim init around, wallow in it, sell it. You do that for a while, enjoying the freedom to stop caring at night.
But one morning you have an idea. You look in the bathroom mirror and the blue lasers are back. No effort this time.
And back to the beginning…