It Takes A Village
“Some inspiring quote about decency and the common good” — Some Inspiring Author
A tale of two startups: Smart founders, building location based services that connect people and make recommendations. Both had trouble with traction and retention early on, on one side of the Atlantic, critics came out of the woodwork, mocking the “hype”, criticizing the lack of revenue, and relishing the presumed “failure” as some sort of twisted victory of theirs. “I knew it”, says the armchair founder, with a knowing look. Across the pond, their environment allowed them to reflect, turn things around, and build the fastest growing social network in history, making “mobile photo sharing” a household phrase, and eventually selling to Facebook for hundreds of millions of dollars.
Being a startup founder is not the glamorous occupation outsiders make it to be. For wide-eyed first-time founders, reality sets in very quickly. Regardless of how you get into it — because it’s cool, chasing that billion dollar exit, wanting to change the world, all of the above — a few months into the job, the only driver that keeps you going is unbridled passion for what you’re building. You will have to sacrifice your social life, your love life and most of your relationships, and anything but the utmost conviction in what you’re doing, and the stability that comes with that conviction, makes it extremely difficult to get back up when you inevitably stumble. It’s a wildly emotional roller-coaster that rarely ends well, a humbling experience to say the least, and a fast-forwarded career through a dark, twisting tunnel with only a flicker of light at the end to guide you.
There is no recipe for success, no checklist for viral growth. 95% of all startups fail. Founders know that going in, investors know that too, and manage their investments accordingly. We go in knowing the risks, and more often than not, we fail. Hopefully, we learn from those failures and do better the second, third and fourth time round. As a founder, you’re not everybody’s boss, you’re everybody’s employee. You’re not your own boss either. It’s the fullest full-time job there is, 7 days a week, 365 (366) days a year, and even taking the time to jot down some thoughts on your industry feels like time stolen from doing actual work.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Founding your own company is an unbelievably rewarding experience. You’re shaping your own destiny and, in the case of social software, offering millions (hopefully!) of people a medium for expression and communication. The upside offsets the rarity of success. Along the way, you rely on your cofounders, and other founders, for support, commiseration and understanding.
Nowhere is that support more crucial than in a nascent ecosystem like Berlin’s. Despite technology being a great equalizer: open-source repos, code snippets and StackOverflow know no geographic borders, our relative inexperience inherently implies more mistakes and more failures (celebrate failure, yay!). The decks are stacked against us: funding and exposure are harder to come by, legislation is still behind the times, and there is a blatant lack of open environments for sharing knowledge and experiences. Our great successes are average when compared to the Valley.
Facebook’s API is bloated. Tumblr wasn’t able to monetize, and Snapchat’s mobile clients suck. It’s easier to criticize than to create. If you’ve never built a product, you won’t understand the iterative process involved. You can’t fathom the need for hype in order to rise above the noise (ps: we don’t buy into the hype). If all you do is consult and mentor, without ever having been on the ride yourself, it’s easy to preach from your pedestal. “Armchair founders” and social media “experts” are always lurking, ready to jump at the chance of kicking one of us when we’re down, TROLLING, it’s sometimes called. Is it jealousy? Arrogance? Stupidity? Regardless, that’s their prerogative. They don’t get it. It’s easier to criticize than to create.
Innovation and failure are eternally intertwined. WE know that. Outsiders, on the other hand, mostly hear the success stories, as well as the cliched “we’re crushing it” answer most founders give, more as an attempt to convince themselves than as an honest answer to an overly simplistic “how are things?”. We can’t begrudge them their misconceptions, but we as founders must never follow their lead. We all benifit from the successes, and we all learn from the failures. It falls upon us, then, as founders and entrepreneurs, to have honest and open discourse in order to positively shape our ecosystem for years to come. My cofounders and I, and numerous others understand that. We happily share our learnings (evenings and Sunday afternoons only, naturally), and happily learn from others. We do it because we understand that we have a burden of responsibility that goes beyond our own companies’ interests. We do it to our own betterment.
Just to be clear, my first and foremost (and only, really) priority is EyeEm. I have no qualms about hiring away your best engineers or stealing your limelight. Beyond my own company’s interests, however, the ecosystem is my extended family. We may not all necessarily like each other, or agree on the value of each other’s companies, but we are still family, and family sticks together.