Welcome to Your Own Personal $!*# Show!

HBO’s Silicon Valley ‘Pied Piper’ isn’t real, but variations on the startup realities they lampoon happen more often than most of us like to admit.

Over the last week, I’ve had multiple talks with people at wildly different startups* that went something like this:

Half the leadership team left or got pushed out. Turns out the company wasn’t tracking revenue properly, it was overstated, and we weren’t doing as well as any of us thought. The sales team has been selling product futures — it’s still not done and customers are tired of us. Leadership is assuring us everything is fine. Morale is low, and everyone is underwater. I’m wondering if I should have known better but figured the fact that the company raised $90M was a good sign it would succeed. Should I stay or should I go?

Yes, it’s Startup World, and the reality is it’s your very own personalized $!*# show! The ugly truth is 90% of startups look or feel like this at crucial stages — even ones that raised plenty of money from brand-name VCs. “It’s darkest before the dawn” is a saying for a reason, and it is extremely difficult to know if you or your startup will be rewarded for persevering.

But Startup World’s mystique — great risk, great reward, big highs, big lows — unfortunately misses the point of what makes all this crazy so special: The learning. If you’re just along for the startup ride, you’ll resent it when things go south. But if you think about your startup as your own learning lab, you can grow personally and professionally. There is nothing like brinkmanship with failure to deepen your empathy and understanding for customers, peers, and leaders. You’ll learn the most from the mistakes you make along the way.

So if you’re not in that lucky 10% of startups where even the chaos feels like magic, here are three simple ways to make sure no matter the outcome of your startup’s $!*# show, you’ll be glad you were part of the journey.

  • Be excited for what you’ll learn. It might be a new technology sector, customer segment, business model, skills or management opportunity. You may have a chance to create from scratch or learn first-hand from some high-profile executives or VCs. What’s important is to be clear about what you want to learn from the very start. And don’t let inertia dictate your future. Keep revisiting your situation and make sure your work environment is a source of intrinsic satisfaction and growth.
  • Like the people you’re on the journey with. What kind of people bring out the best in you? This is so important but often overlooked. Working with brilliant tyrants may sound intriguing but it can also be soul sucking. Ask yourself this: “When have I been at my best and what kind of people were around me?” Managers and leaders change, so you’ll want a culture that fosters the kind of people who value the type of collaboration or teamwork (or lack thereof — whatever is your jam) that works best for you.
  • Know what you want from the experience. Are you doing this for the resume optics of a particular brand-name company? Do you love the mission of a company and want to be more purpose-driven? Are you trying to position yourself for the next level of advancement? Is this a switch from B2B to B2C or vice versa? These are all legitimate things to consider in choosing your Startup World adventure; just know them in advance so you’ll know when you’ve gotten what you came for.

President Obama had a plaque in his office that read, “Hard things are hard.” Every startup’s journey is hard and truly unique. Those who succeed have insane belief in themselves and a willingness to buck the odds — or sometimes any semblance of reason. This is why it is so important to know why you’ve picked your startup so you can know when it has run its course for you. The company may go on — it may even become a great success story — but it’s okay to decide you want to get off a rocketship because what you came for changed — or you have. Every startup deserves to have people in it who really want to be there for the right reasons. And everyone in Startup World deserves to keep growing.

*not any in our portfolio (this week, at least), but no startup is immune to any of this!