The Biggest Trap for Founders Only Three Guys are Talking About

Fred Wilson just quietly let the mic go, and we should all listen up.

Before there were TV series about startups and tech offices well-equipped with Razor scooters + ping pong tables, there were side projects.

What side projects lacked in funding, they made up for in “problem passion” and grit.

There’s nothing glamorous about pulling 50 hour work weeks only to come home and “start your day”, begging strangers to user interview or writing code when friends are winding down and watching Netflix — but man is it exhilarating.

In addition to Fred, Sam Altman and Paul Graham have been talking about the magic of side projects for a long time. While I wish I had listened sooner, I’m thankful these guys have called bullshit on the biggest elephant in the cushy startup conference room:

Because it’s so easy to get paid to be a founder on day one, we’re losing the stomach, will and authenticity to get through the inevitable roller coaster of building something great.

Additionally, we’re starting companies around problems we don’t deeply care about — this in turn leads to lots of hollow startups. Hollowness when it comes to growth, but more importantly, hollowness when it comes to determination.

What if we ran a regression on the number of days a founder went without getting paid to understand its relationship to either being acquired or still being in business today? I’d be willing to bet we’d see an exceptionally tight correlation.

Every startup founder that’s been slogging it out long enough will tell you “It never gets easier.” If you manage to truly find product market fit, maybe you’re no longer worrying about making rent; instead though, you’re worrying about how to negotiate a larger office, or how to fire your first employee, or how to sustain growth off an ever-increasing base, or how to make it home in time for dinner with your family.

Starting a startup is fun. Sustaining a startup is grueling. Sure, there’s the off-chance you might sell, but that’s likely five to ten years out. In between, there’s countless sacrifices along the way. And if you’re among “the other 95%”, there’s all that same sacrifice only to ultimately wind down something you’ve put more into than potentially anything else in your life.

Why on earth should anyone commit to this? Simple — because you can’t not do it. Because if you don’t, then who will? This reasoning is similar to the makings of great side projects. It’s not done for the fame, or the fortune, it’s done for the love of making something that might not exist without you.

Thanks to Ethan Austin and Sean Johnson for reading drafts of this.