The Seven Deadly Sins of a Startup
Back in 1996, I was a young boy growing up in Jerusalem. I knew very little of the world outside my school studies (this is before Google). I had a VCR though, and when my brother came in one day with the video cassette of Se7en I was in awe. The movie was incredible, and I watched it again and again. Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt gave an amazing performance. The story was interesting and the horrible twist at the end broke my spirit every time I watched it. And I watched it repeatedly, as it was one of only three movies I had at the time. The movie introduced me to a concept that doesn’t exist in Judaism and was introduced by the Catholic faith — the seven deadly sins.
Once in awhile, ever since 1996, I find myself thinking about the seven deadly sins (I will be using Wikipedia’s definitions below). How can we make sure we don’t commit those sins? Even if one is not Catholic, or even a complete atheist, I am of the opinion that these sins should still be avoided. In the life of a startup, it is easy to commit these sins, as I have learned. So, once in awhile, a refresher on what not to do, and what to focus on, is useful. So here is my take on the seven deadly sins as they apply to a startup.
An uncontrolled desire for sex, money, food, fame or power. As you become more successful as a startup, you always want more. There is always this bar you try to surpass. Once you do, you set the bar higher again. It can be seen as aspirational, which is a good thing. However, where does moving the bar up lead you? Will it make you build a better company, or will it lead to wrong doings? Will it result in happier customers, or are you trying to reach the level of power where you can force the market to do what you want?
Overindulgence and overconsumption of anything to the point of waste. It is normally very hard to blame most startups of overconsumption. However, recently, more and more discussions around high cash burn rates, the rate at which a company loses money, have emerged. Startups have successfully raised sums of money the market hasn’t seen since 2001. Some are employing these large sums in a manner that doesn’t necessarily align with what the shareholders, investors or customers want. They are wasting somebody else’s hard earned cash, and that’s a sin.
A very excessive or rapacious desire and pursuit of material possessions. Sometimes companies realize they are onto something. They’ve convinced the world that their creation is beneficial, and customers are knocking down their doors. At that point, it is easy to consider raising the prices, trying to extract every last dollar from the customer. After all, they’d pay for it as long as you keep it in the right range. Don’t forget, however, that you haven’t created a company in order to squeeze every last dime out of a given market. You’ve created a company in order to change that market and make the people inside of it more successful. While a company must ensure it creates value for its shareholders, I argue the value must be created for the market. Greed stands in the way of that, as it perceives the interaction with the market as a zero-sum game.
Laziness. You can’t be lazy at a startup. It is hard work. Very hard. Not only the hours, but the amount of different things you need to do on strapped resources. You want to do payroll? Do it yourself. You need to fly to a customer to improve the relationship with them? Take the red eye if that’s your only option. You need to spend your weekend figuring out how to correctly position something? Buy a six pack and sit at your laptop until it’s done perfectly. Startups are hard work. Achieving what you want in life is hard work, whatever it may be. That’s life, wouldn’t be as much fun if it was easy.
Inordinate and uncontrolled feelings of hatred and anger. Emotions rarely have a place in a startup, but surely hatred and anger have no room. It will not help you to hate anyone, or be angry at anyone. Whatever someone has done, they have mostly probably done so because it is in their best interests (or at least so they think). You cannot be angry at them for doing so, even if it contradicts your own needs. They do what they need to in order to survive. In order to feed their families, progress in their career or achieve their goals. Instead of being angry with someone, understand what they have done and why. Malice is rarely a driver and so you should consider how that person benefited from what they’ve done and how, in the future, they can benefit from helping you.
An insatiable desire. We all know what envy is and how to recognize it. Rarely though, does envy actually get you anywhere. It is easy to be envious of another person’s success — a large funding round, hiring a top executive, closing a big customer or even an exit. However, such envy gets you nowhere really. Healthy competition can help you get further, but pure envy does nothing but result in hatred and anger, as well as some of the other sins. So, next time you feel envious — chillax. Get a drink. Think of what you need to do to be more successful, irrespective of other’s’ success. Then do it.
Believing that one is essentially better than others; the original and most serious of the seven deadly sins: the source of the others. When someone seems overly proud, or even arrogant, we immediately dislike them. What makes that person feel they are better than us? Or when a company acts in a proud way, we like it far less. We see ourselves as the customers of that company, the reason for its existence. Without us, it is nothing. So what warrants its pride? It is very easy to act in a proud way — after all, look at how far you’ve come. You’ve achieved things no one thought were possible. So you are proud of them. However, act in a humble way. Humility, is actually an extremely important virtue. If you make the mistake of acting in a proud way, take a step back, apologize, and avoid in the future.
To conclude my thoughts: it is always important to remember why we do what we do. A team creates a company in order to change something in the world around them and make it better. But even outside of a startup — a person usually finds their meaning in life and attempts to fulfill that meaning. Along the way, it is easy to lose sight of what’s important. You see what happens to other startups, or people, and it may cause you to make mistakes. I have made some that I hope I will never make again. Let’s all remember the seven sins and avoid them.