Hacking the breakthrough

An excerpt from my upcoming book HACKING THE CORE.

PHOTO: Joshua Earle

Often “future” startup entrepreneurs ask me how to start a company will be guaranteed to succeed. I read this as a lack of adventure, risk, courage. I tell them to get up early every morning, work very hard at something they love, repeat for one to two years, and look for the elusive breakthrough along the way.

The breakthrough is the holy grail of startups. Many try to synthesize breakthroughs, but that usually doesn’t work. It’s impossible to predict or plan true viral expansion of a business, although that’s what we all strive for.

It has to come naturally, organically; always been that way — the best discoveries are just that, discoveries. Steve Jobs was a wizard at turning discoveries into new markets, mostly other people’s discoveries.

Often breakthroughs come accidentally, from a side project that is done to support the main idea but then usurps it to become the exciting thing that’s talked about years later. Twitter was a side project for Evan Williams bank account while trying to build another company. Flickr was an added feature to a MMOG platform. Slack came from another gaming startup (Glitch) by the same founder from Flickr Stewart Butterfield. And on and on.

Often great sartups are started with excel spreadsheets. Often they are something built for personal use, like the orginal Yahoo. I guess the lesson is to be true to yourself, look right in front of your face, and look for organic solutions to real problems.

Lesson #1: Be yourself.

We can do all of the right things to try make a business (hopefully) grow faster, but nothing beats a breakthrough.

Many frustrated entrepreneurs try to create alchemy by blogging like a maniac, using modern digital marketing tools to stay in the game, social media-ing, heavily communicating to people they know. Writing, blogging, emailing.

They are motivated for whatever reason, and this method often works.

This is where I see their breakthroughs happen, usually when they’re not even looking for it. There’s a chapter in my book about desire, so I won’t repeat myself, but desire, passion, and energy are what create these creative discoveries.

Lesson #2: When in doubt, write, research, communicate.

Mattermark and Product Hunt

PHOTO: Jordan McQueen

Here are a couple of recent breakthrough examples I watched happen over the past 2 years: Mattermark and Product Hunt. I watched these 2 entrepreneurs persevere over months, then years to earn a rare place in the Silicon Valley hierarchy.

Mattermark: Danielle Morrill was trying to save/pivot/evolve her startup Referly in 2013 so she openly wrote in her blog about her actual process — She honestly covered her frustrations, described the eventual shutdown and then the relaunch of something totally new — Mattermark. She also talked about the crazy startup world she found herself in. Many could relate to the stories but few could create the same outcomes.

She didn’t just want more funding to stay alive like so many struggly post-seed companies do, she actually looked for a new challenge, a real breakthrough. She wound up finding right in front of her: analyzing the VC and startup world of Silicon Valley and beyond. The result is Mattermark, not as big as Facebook yet, but now an intergral part of the SV ecosystem. Check out her blog for lots of good stories.

Product Hunt: I first talked to Ryan Hoover in late 2013. He was selling job ads on his very new little project Product Hunt when I was trying to staff a startup in L.A. I remember he asked for $300 for an ad in his new product review blog. Product Hunt was a passion project, something he did anyway, and was a great promoter of his personality and energy. He followed the “build something for myself” thought process and started in a coffee shop in San Francisco. What breakthrough he created! Now Product Hunt is a very important part of the worldwide startup ecosystem with millions of rabid followers. Here’s a great post about his journey.

What’s so amazing to me is that both of these entrepreneurs created these standout companies in Silicon Valley / San Francisco, where there are thousands of bright people trying every day to be the next cool startup and rise above the noise. As we know, 99% never get very far. That scene can be very intimidating, especially when you’re “under-employed”.

Hacking Your Breakthrough

In startup land one of the hardest things to do is to stay true to what you believe, enjoy, and care about, and at the same time maintain your focus through so many distractions and obstacles. But that’s the definition of a true entrepreneur.

If you keep doing a lot of the right things, stay agile and pursue your passions you’re not guaranteed success, but you vastly increase your chances.

So no matter whatyou’re working on, don’t neglect your little side project, or simple tool you created to help your day go by more smoothly. The breakthrough is in there somewhere.


Tom Nora

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