A different perspective on startups


The article by Arthur Attwell.

Why I won’t run another startup

Earlier this year, I closed my startup. So now I get to reflect on what I’d have done differently. This is a note to my future self: Don’t call your projects ‘startups’. It’s a semantic trick, but a really important one. Here’s why.

‘Startups’ have become a commodity in an industry of startup conferences, websites, courses and competitions. As founders of young organisations, we struggle to distinguish genuine guidance and support from the distracting pizzazz of the startup industry, where we’re just the product, not the customer. Lured by the lights, we spend valuable hours crafting slide decks, jumping on planes, giving presentations and filling out entry forms, almost always so that someone can sell tickets to the show. I worked it hard, and I didn’t see the return. I want that time back for my business.

Here are five new rules for myself.

No more startup events

I’ve been invited to four startup events just this week. Wait — checks email — that’s five. Startup seminars, breakfasts, retreats, showcases. Say no to all of them.

Startup events are “good for networking.” I made an interesting connection at one or two, I think. For the most part they’ve sucked vast amounts of time I really should have put into working on my organisation.

Your next project may be in publishing, healthcare, engineering or another industry, but it’s probably not in the startup industry. At a startup-industry event, you’re only going to meet startup-industry people. They are not your customers. Only go to events packed full of potential customers in your industry.

Very occasionally, treat yourself to a dinner with a few entrepreneurs you like — it helps fight the loneliness. Otherwise, if you’re not out selling, get back to your office and work. Or go home and spend some down-time with your family.

No more startup competitions

Then there are the competitions. Innovation competitions, pitching competitions, business-plan competitions. Sometimes the prize is an investment in your company.

Honestly, do you want an investor who comes shopping for startups at a cocktail function?

I got a call from a major international consulting firm to tell me we’d won a big innovation award. But I can’t tell you about it because I have to pay them a license fee if I do. Seriously: they wanted 7500 euros just to let us tell people we’d won.

You can also win “business support”, or MBA students to “help you grow your business” for their course project. I’ve spent days with teams who are new to my industry using my time to tell me things I already know. I want those days back.

If you’re certain that you have time to enter competitions, only enter the ones where they’re giving out loads of free money and you know you can win. Don’t be the product.

Beware the warm glow of startup media

The startup-industry press is so seductive. It’s pretty and says it loves you. Being a startup, especially based in Africa, is great for media coverage, especially if you win a startup award.

At Paperight we kept a long list of posts and articles about us. We won startup and innovation awards in London, Frankfurt and New York, an Accenture Innovation Award, and public congratulations in South Africa’s national parliament. We were featured in several “startups to watch” articles and were profiled on the websites of CNN, Forbes and others. We were even featured in a book about open-business innovation. We’re fairly certain that the awards made this coverage happen.

But in not one case did we see a corresponding spike in sales, or calls from investors, and for a young business, sales are all that really matters. Don’t chase coverage in the startup industry. Find your own industry’s media outlets and focus only on them.

Don’t tell customers you’re a startup

Every executive wants to love a startup. Like a pet. But no one wants to buy from a startup. Especially big companies. Big companies want to buy from big, stable businesses. They want to trust that you’ll still be around in a few years. And their people need to feel you’re a familiar name. At Paperight, we needed book publishers to trust us with their most valuable IP. It’s insane to think they’d give it to a ‘startup’. We could have put our whole business in a cupboard for ten years, then dusted it off and they’d be more likely to work with us, because we’d be too old to be called a startup.

I’ll be surprised if I stick to my new rules. So remind me, please, because I’ll probably forget: run a business, not a startup. You don’t have the time.


Text credits: Arthur Attwell’s blog on Medium, CC-BY

Image credits: Pixabay