$hit entrepreneurs tell themselves
When I was a kid, I had an overweight friend. Not morbidly obese, but somewhere between husky and chubby. And as you would imagine, kids sometimes made fun of him for it. He always had one of two comebacks lined up: “I have a thick skin”, or the good ol’ “I’m big boned”. I’m sure you heard this from someone right? In my book, this goes down with a list of many other excuses such as “I can quit smoking anytime I want”, “I don’t have time to workout”, and “I’ll visit the family next vacation”.
We all have a list of BS excuses that we keep telling ourselves. The bigger the problem gets, the more excuses we make up. Entrepreneurs particularly excel at this. It’s easy for us to come up with very elaborate reasons to why we’re still working to realize somebody else’s dream, why we’re miserable in our own company, or why we’re not successful yet. So here’s a list of things entrepreneurs tell themselves and why they don’t hold any water whatsoever.
I launched this company to solve XYZ problem
BS. 99% of the time, that’s not right. We don’t launch companies to solve problems. We launch companies because we see opportunity and we can’t help but capitalize on it. We launch companies because we want to make money, a lot of it, fast. We launch companies because we can’t be happy working for other people. We launch companies because we enjoy the social status of “the entrepreneur”. It makes us look different, exotic, adventurous, bold and exciting. It makes people look up to us. People don’t look up to Sundar Pichai. Sundar Pichai is an employee. People look up to Sergey and Larry. I bet you don’t know the name of Microsoft’s CEO. Here’s a hint: it’s not Bill Gates!
I got news for you. There’s nothing wrong with doing stuff for the purpose of making money. Actually, we do it all the time. We sell our time to our employers for a few bucks every month and we have little issue publicly admitting it to people. But when we focus on that goal and embark on a mission to make some serious money, the public shaming tends to get to us, so we start to believe the stories we tell our clients, our investors, and our employees. I think that a mission that is aligned with the founder’s values is a key ingredient to long-term success.
But make no mistake, the mission might be the trigger that made you start that business, but it’s not the reason why you want to have a business in the first place. Just like with everything else in life, that would be a combination of money, social status, lifestyle and a few other factors. That’s okay too. It’s okay.
I’m not foolish enough to forget about people who are really driven by a mission. If a close person dies to leukemia and you dedicate your life to the goal of curing cancer, I can understand that. If you’re discriminated against, if you’re a refugee, if you didn’t have access to education growing up and you want to peruse a life of trying to make sure that doesn’t happen to other people, then kudos my friend, sign me up for a donation, I might show up and lend a hand on Sundays.
But please don’t tell me that you’re driven by a mission like “streamlining team collaboration” or “developing real-time decentralized IT infrastructures across multi-channel enterprise solutions” because I am certain you would not do it for free and you sure as hell wouldn’t do it if we took your name off the wall, took your title of your business card or took your name off the list of speakers in the next networking event.
So here’s an honest and helpful piece of advice: Draw the line very carefully between your investor pitch, your marketing pitch and the things you tell yourself in a moment of honest contemplation.
I am working at this company to learn
BS. This is my all-time favorite. It’s more common for people my age with limited experience. Here’s a scenario that might sound familiar: You work at this great company and next to you is this guy/gal who is so full of energy and potential. You’re having lunch with this person and they tell you about an awesome business idea that they’ve been contemplating and they get all excited and fired up. You ask the question that any sane person would ask at that point: “Okay, so what are doing in this company then? Why don’t you go ahead and do that?” And you get this answer: “I’m still working here to get experience”.
Now don’t get me wrong, this can indeed be a very legitimate excuse if your current job is launching businesses on a daily basis. If your boss often meets with you and asks how many businesses you launched this quarter, or how have the business you launched last quarter been performing, then you are in a job where you might be learning. In which case you should also quit and go do that job for yourself and keep all the margins for yourself instead of doing it for a faceless multinational that doesn’t even know your name and what you stand for.
As the most perceptive of the readers probably realized (I always talk as if I had a large audience) the last paragraph was sarcastic. Learning is always a BS excuse. You’re not learning anything necessary. In fact, your company’s is actively trying to figure out ways to keep you from taking your skills elsewhere. That’s why they develop those proprietary infrastructures. That’s why they box you in tight job descriptions that suck the life out of life.
You might be telling yourself that a first job can benefit you a lot if we’re talking about just a couple of years. As a matter of fact, everything you do in a company is teaching you something. But what I’m arguing is that you’re learning the wrong things. You don’t need to learn Java to start a company that sells a service based on a Java application. You need to learn how to start a company that sells a service based on a Java application! That’s a whole different ball game and I assure you they’re not teaching you that where you’re working now. Sure, you need to know some Java. But that’s what SkillShare is for! Pick up a book or an online course, but don’t slave away for years in somebody else’s company for heaven’s sake!
But out of all the excuses, this one I get the most. I don’t think it’s lazy, I don’t think it’s passive and I sure have a degree of respect towards it. It’s because we humans tend to always fall on the thing we already know how to do. So I’m a designer at an agency and I want to start my own agency? I have no clue how I should go about achieving that goal? The immediate response that my brain spits out is to tell me that I need to do more of what I’m doing now because that’s what’s comfortable, that’s what’s familiar, that’s what has always brought results.
So we convince ourselves that we’re learning and we validate that assumption with the bits and pieces of information that we gather daily. But we’re learning the wrong things.
We think to ourselves: a few more years of this and then I’ll have my own agency! Wrong! You either can have it today or you probably won’t be able to have it after those few more years because you’re not collecting the skills needed to face that challenge.
So hear me out on this example because I think this is the most common one. So you’re a developer. You write Java for a living. You get an idea for an application that could turn into a very lucrative business. So you start telling yourself that you need to learn a few more things before you start a company and work on your business idea. Question: is there anyone is the world that knows enough Java to code your website/app? Probably yes. So why don’t you hire them? You probably don’t have enough money. So your problem is raising money, right? So how much are you learning about raising money in your current job? And say you’re reading books and watching videos and getting an MBA in your free time. Which one do you think will be a better investment: Doing that or actually going to raise some freaking money? Same could be said for most problems. Don’t eat soup with a fork. Hammering the fork until it becomes flat enough isn’t the best idea. Go get a freaking spoon.
Many people think it’s just the first step and then it’ll take care of itself. It probably won’t. So you stayed where you are and became the god of Java, got a Ph.D. in raising money, and gave two TED talks about hiring engineers. You built the company and now you need to scale. Then what do you do? Will you get another degree or go bury yourself in another company until you learn how to scale a company? Will you do that in every challenge? Sure you won’t. Sure you can’t. So why are you doing it now?
There’s a legal barrier
BS, a classic nonetheless. You want to start a company but you are not sure how to go about that in terms of legal requirements. How do you get incorporated? Do you start an LLC or an LTD? Can you still keep your job before you go full time? Does your Visa allow it? What happens to your mortgage? How much tax will you have to pay? What happens if things don’t go well? These are very good questions but they are all horrible excuses. You should stop telling yourself that and I’m going to tell you why.
As an entrepreneur, you have a legitimate right to be worried about legal stuff. But, just like with any problem, you should address it and dedicate time and energy to solve it. The reason why this is such a baloney excuse is that these particular concerns are easily fixed. All you need to do is to write down all your legal questions and go sit down with an accountant or a lawyer for one hour and they’ll give you all the information you need to know. It’ll probably take way less than an hour, probably 25 minutes if they’re good at what they do. But if you’re scrappy and you don’t want to start spending money before you even get started, well, good for you, there’s plenty of different ways you can do that too.
All you need to do is to go to call a few friends who have started companies and ask. You need to pick and choose what to ask and who you ask but you’ll probably be fine because your questions are mostly going to be generalities that everyone who’s been to that rodeo before knows the answers. Don’t have such friends? Go to any coworking space, conference, networking event. Entrepreneurs tend to be really helpful. They might want to help you more than you want their help. Don’t have access to those kinds of things in your town? I can relate. All you have to do is to knock on the doors of any new company and try to talk to the owner. Again, I tried this, people tend to be very generous at this stuff. It’s like we all see ourselves in it and we want to help, it’s great. Better yet, if you are in a self-respecting country, you probably can look most of these things up online for free and get very accurate results. Bottom line, the information is out there, you just need to go get it.
But some people might have other legal problems that are indeed worth fussing about. I know I did when I was first starting out. It’s when you’re doing something either highly regulated like payment, betting, insurance or anything medical. In that case, you need to get a professional’s opinion and you’ll probably want to invest in that if you don’t want to end up in trouble.
But that’s not the part I want to talk about. I want to talk about when you’re doing the exact opposite: something so new that the law is either very blurry or virtually none existing. Think about the early days of Uber, PayPal, AdSense and those types of businesses. There was no law for it when they first started and the laws still didn’t catch up properly to this day in many countries.
You might be wanting to start a business like that, a business that operates in the legal grey zone. You might be wondering whether or not to do it. What if you do it and make money and then you go to jail because it turns out to be illegal? I’ve been there and I was very confused and frustrated. But now I know the answer.
Bottom line, if it’s not explicitly illegal, you probably should do it. Get a professional’s opinion. If the lawyer doesn’t assure you that the law clearly states it’s illegal, then you got yourself an opportunity and you should seize it.
Innovation is bound to be ahead of the law. Which one do you think came first, the car or the driver’s license? Do you think they have laws for the use of machine learning? They probably have those in Estonia but for the rest of the world, companies are doing it despite the lack of regulations.
It’s the natural cycle of the law. Laws are meant to regulate and protect. They, by definition, proceed and can’t anticipate innovation. So if you’re in the grey zone, you’ll be fine. Just make sure it’s not that grey because that’s a very slippery slope.
I’m too young
BS. I wouldn’t hold this against you if you’re in high school, although many entrepreneurs proved that wrong to be perfectly honest. But if you just graduated high school then too bad, you can’t use that anymore. If you chose to go waste your time in college trying to get a pointless degree so you can get ahead in the placement office or get a shiny job at the huge multinational corporation, then you’re probably old enough to decide that it’s your life and you can use it to start a business. It’s really that simple.
There is no such thing as too young. Surely being young (less than 25 I’d say) will hinder your chances in many aspects of the entrepreneurial life, especially if you look young. You probably won’t have the same chance as a seasoned industry veteran to get an investment in most cases, even though your chances might be higher in some others. You probably won’t know a guy who knows a guy who knows the person you’re trying to get in touch with. You probably won’t be taken seriously. You probably won’t get the meeting you want to get, you won’t be able to hire like an older person would hire. It’ more difficult when you’re younger.
However, as a young gun, you have tools that the old folks don’t have. First of all, you’re young! The things that the old people call “the new things”, are just “things” to you. You’re on the bleeding edge of technology and you don’t have to put any effort into knowing what’s new and what’s cool and what’s the latest. That’s your world. I only discovered this when I got to talk to some older entrepreneurs. I’m talking forty-something years old entrepreneurs. They didn’t know what an Instagram story is. And if you think I was just talking to some not so “tech-savvy” people, then I can tell you that I talked to senior engineers, legitimate people who are not comfortable with hashtags and don’t know what a boomerang is. It’s a fact. I’m only twenty something years old and I didn’t know what TikTok is until recently! As you get older, it gets harder to keep track because you already know a lot of stuff. That’s just the way it is.
Here’s another advantage: You learn quicker. Ever seen an older guy trying to work out WordPress? It’s like an enigma machine. Moreover, I’ve seen some engineers launch startups and code their very simple websites in Java! I mean, didn’t you hear about this thing called node.js? They just get so comfortable with their things that it gets too tough to learn the new technology. It’s not a rule, but it’s a common occurrence. Add to that the fact that because you’re young, you learn the latest things from the get-go. You don’t use flash, you don’t even know it ever existed. You know HTML5 and it works for you!
I’ll end it here, but I have a list of other BS excuses that entrepreneurs keep telling themselves. It includes: I’m too old, I don’t have enough money, I don’t know where to start, I don’t have a good idea, I got it all figured out, I know what the solution is, I don’t have a co-founder and many more. Stay tuned for Part two where I go on a rampage about those too. Thanks for sticking in. Cheers.