How to Ensure Your Startup Fails
The Surest Guarantee You’re Launching a Startup for the Wrong Reason
The famous business guru Seth Godin once observed that many startup founders languish in indefinite postponement of that fatal moment, when they must say to their customers: pay me money. They’re planning, plotting, researching, marketing, simulating business, rather than transacting it. A founder in this stage, like a ship in port, escapes the risk of bearing any blows.
The key point however is that the “blow” most of these false founders are avoiding is not money — they often are drawing down very real capital, not to mention valuable time — during this stage, but confrontation with themselves. I am as bookish and scholastic a person as I’ve ever met, and decided during a sojourn from academia to start a small business in New York City anyway. It's true that I was fascinated by the analytical challenges, but analytical challenges make up about one percent of starting and running a business — the other ninety-nine is actually running it. Hitchcock famously said movies are life with the boring parts cut out — he might have added that making movies (or anything worthwhile) can feel like the boring parts with life cut out. You had better be doing something true to your passion and the imprint you want to make on the world to be able to withstand it when the weight rests entirely on your shoulders.
You Must Know What You’re In It For
I was not adequately scared of failing in business because I knew it would never reflect the real me — any more than Lebron James or Bill Clinton would likely experience a blow to their self-esteem if they were abusively dismissed by a casting director looking for a ballet dancer. Everyone is scared of failing at the thing they were destined to do, and will often concoct all manner of alternatives that appear to still be strenuous so as to be free of ever facing this possibility.
If you have really found the thing that animates you enough to carry you through the “boring parts”, then peace comes from the realization that there is no such thing as failure — the only way to fail there would be to give up. Thomas Edison once said he didn’t fail the first two thousand times — he simply found two thousand ways not to make a lightbulb. I’m sure he experienced boredom, frustration, and drudgery; but they were overtaken by confidence and determination that he was in the right business and literally could not fail except by his own will, if he allowed himself to give up.
It’s Called “Calling” for a Reason: Listen for & ‘Excavate’ It, Don’t ‘Create’ It
This certainty of one’s calling is a lot of what Luther meant by “faith”, a fact worth remembering in this post-religious and especially post-sectarian age. Who and what we are as individuals is a fact that can always be discovered by listening to oneself — and maintaining the confidence to pursue it amid the doubts, both within and without.
This has nothing to do with the controversy over “following your passion”, or going the way of Greenday, tattooing your face so as to foreclose corporate employment options, and putting extra fire on yourself to deliver. Anyone thinking about a startup is ambitious and goal-driven, and the path to your goals may entail a more straight-laced and conservative segment of road in order to realize them responsibly and reliably. The point is only that there is always a way to achieving your goals that can be charted, even if it involves some twists, strategic patience, or resource-marshaling along the way.
The reason this traditionally involved a more explicitly spiritual component is that someone might retort: “my goal is to be in the NBA” or “my goal is to be a seven-figure banker.” Those are not the kind of goals I’m talking about because they treat the value created for others as incidental; what is forefronted is the prize and vanity associated with their attainment. Real joy comes from the skillful creation of products, services, and systems that create value for others, and there is always a way to do that, and get paid for it, in a way that aligns with one’s natural talents and faculties. Suicide was traditionally treated as such a grave sin by Christians because it represented a kind of “peremptory” posture with God: either you give me what I want, in the way that I want it, or I declare life to be not worth living. There is something arrogant and dismissive vis-a-vis everyone else in the economy about saying “I’m only interested in the game of life if I get to be in the NBA” — which for most of us, based on height alone, is simply out of the cards. But if you know your passion is basketball, there are other glorious careers to be had even if they don’t involve membership in the professional players’ association.
Therefore, the easiest way to ensure your startup fails is to go into it for the wrong reason — because you are enticed by the social or financial trimmings of being a successful startup founder, rather than because you see a problem that you are on fire to solve, and know that your personal constitution equips you to do so.