The Startup Reality Check
I’m calling this collection The Startup Breakdown, both in order to explain the methodology — an up close, step-by-step dissection of the startup process — but also to reference the deep angst and mental imbalance that starting a company constantly urges me towards. So far I’ve managed to merely brush up against it. This feels like missing the last step on a flight of stairs, dizzying and unnerving. But its pull is strong, magnetic; it wants me to come closer. Succumbing to it would of course mean, well, breakdown, and downfall for my venture. So I’m being forced to build up my psychological muscles, learning to repel it to a safe distance.
I’m starting up a website for real life career videos. It’s a platform for behind-the-scenes careers inspiration. It’s a dream job discovery engine. It’s a place to share your work and be inspired, to get ideas and recommendations, to hire and get hired. As you can see, I’m working on the tag-line. It’s called Videyay. For now, anyway.
Maybe it’s not like this for other people, for other companies. I wanted, still want, my company to be The Happy Startup. And it is happy, in a way. But it’s also hard. Happy, Hard and Heartbreaking. Hasty. Hopeful. Hungry?
I so want to be all cats and lols and man buns like Product Hunt. Ryan Hoover looks like he’s having so much FUN, at the same time as absolutely killing it in the Valley. I want it to be fun. But the truth is it’s actually quite intimidating and quite lonely. Is that off-putting? If feels too honest. Will investors avoid me if I’m awkwardly candid about how terrifying this is?
But you can be terrified and confident at the same time. It’s the high functioning imposter syndrome at work. Irrational economic agent coming through! But it makes a weird kind of sense to be fearful. It shows you’re not delusional. Or not totally delusional, anyway.
While I’m on the subject I might as well lay it all out there. I’m a 31 year old non-technical, female, solo founder, with a hugely ambitious idea for a tech product that I think will change the world. And I’ve got a one year old son.
So yeah, I want it to be fun. But it’s also kind of serious. [To be clear, I’m absolutely not saying the PH guys aren’t serious about what they’re doing.]
I’m such a positive person in real life. But this post makes me sounds so somber. And a little desperate. I’ve lost my writing mojo, and it’s been replaced by that of a mournful scrooge with poor grammar. I try writing with a forced smile on my face. It doesn’t help.
This doesn’t read like any other startup company blog I’ve come across. Is this that good kind of “new”? Or is there a reason people only tend to share wry and funny stories about blips in their startup journey that end with “and then we figured it out and thousands of users started coming through the door”.
Whatever the cause, I’m going to have to roll with the fear because I’ve got things that want to be written. You know the feeling, it’s almost physical. You’ve got to let those ideas free when they want to get out. They’re usually not as novel or shiny as they think they are, but I won’t tell them if you won’t.
I think what’s lacking here is context, something to anchor this conversation within the broader sweep of my life as the writer and starter-upper, and your lives as the readers. We consume so much written media on the internet, it zips by leaving barely a trace. But who is writing all this stuff?
This is a general problem with written media and something that I particularly came across when I was thinking about changing careers. There is so much advice out there and you read it and absorb it and even start to spread it. But then it doesn’t work (if it did work you’d stop reading). So you keep searching for new advice, newly formulated or newly framed. But the problem isn’t that the advice is bad. It’s that it was never meant for you.
One example I’ve come across is the bounty of tips about how to be more productive. I tried Pomodoro, GTD, Get Stuff Done Like a Boss. I genuinely tried every to-do list app that exists (if I list them here I know you will click and download them even though I’ve just said they don’t work. Am I right?).
The thing is, I wasn’t getting any more productive. Then I took a step back and assessed the situation. I was, at the time, an antitrust lawyer working at one of the top law firms in the world for major corporations on high pressure merger cases and cartel investigations. I couldn’t do that job if I wasn’t already operating at pretty high levels of productivity. Really, there wasn’t any further to go. I didn’t need to work harder at incorporating more reading or exercise or meditation into my life, I needed to figure out how to make my work fun again. Any time I saved by being a little better at managing my inbox or my to-do list just got channeled into more work. Plus I’ve never had a problem with focus. When I’m in the flow I just get on with it. That productivity advice — it wasn’t really meant for me.
When we see stuff online we can’t really tell who the intended audience is. We assume it’s us, because we assume everyone is like us. But they’re not. More than with other types of writing I think context really matters when it comes to life advice, career advice, startup advice and other “how to” type writing.
The other thing that matters is authenticity. Again that’s really hard to find in writing alone, at least in short-form, link-bait, commoditised writing, and again part of the problem is lack of context. [There are many great examples of writing on the internet, and the availability of a publishing platform to anyone with a computer and an internet connection has certainly been one of the most societally transformative of all the internet’s innovations. However, it is relatively rare to find authoritative and contextualised writing on the internet — and when you do, it tends to be too long for a subway ride or a lunch break and therefore less accessible or comfortable to read online. This, I think, is why I still read books to really get my head around a subject.]
One way to fix this problem is to write much longer pieces, including your background as the author, thus allowing the reader to place your perspective within the framework of your life. But there’s another way, and it’s incredibly powerful: video.
You have to be very good at writing for it to transport you in high-fidelity into the life of another person. You don’t have to be very good at video to do that. In fact the worse you are at video the better, the more real the video is. Livestreaming is a great example of this. Most streams or scopes are terrible. That’s part of what makes them so compelling. That’s what makes them real.
The video I’ve included with this article serves to illustrate my point. For example, I could have told you where I’m from, or maybe you could find out by clicking around my bio, but within moments of watching the video you would know from my accent that I either grew up in, or live in, England (although you might also deduce that I grew up watching a lot of American tv). You’d also know what my kitchen looks like. Now maybe that’s not relevant to you. But if I’m writing an article telling you how to live your life (which, by the way, this post most certainly is not) then you may be interested to know where and how I live mine.
A side-note on authenticity. I delayed writing this post because I didn’t have happy, shiny things to report about my startup. I thought authenticity meant “the open, silly, whimsical me”, as opposed to the “efficient, forthright, unapologetic me” that I was when I was a lawyer. But actually it doesn’t mean that at all. It means real, as in laid bare, exposed, vulnerable. It’s not about who I want to be, it’s about who I am. I didn’t expect that authenticity was going to be so uncomfortable, for me to convey and for you to read and watch.
I think video is where authenticity and context live, and I think both those things are essential for careers and startup stories. This is the basis for my startup in fact. It feels like I’m late to the video party, but maybe it always feels like that at the beginning.
Can it be done? Yes. Can it be done by me? Maybe.
Show this post some ❤. It truly makes my day and it’s how stories grow on Medium.