Startups are not a science
Let’s stop pretending they are
Startups and politics are very similar. The more you read about them, think about them, observe them, the more fuzzy they become. The more we realize the terminologies we use are designed for convenience in explanations but are not readily applied to the way things work in the real world; that the concepts we have formed in our minds are based on ideal scenarios and not reality. Because of course, everyone’s journey will be different. That’s the fun of it, but also the risk. Depending on where you spend your time (city, country, neighborhood, building), and depending on who you talk to (who you reach out to as well as who you cross paths with by fate), your path will be continuously influenced, ever so slightly each day. A chance conversation with someone who’s advice you trust because it worked for them could end up crushing you in the long run. Or it could save you. That’s because again, everyone’s path is different. The reality is different from the theory — and often much more harsh.
One majoring influencing factor in the outcome of a startup, which often goes unaddressed in theoretical explanations, is motivation. Is the desire to build a startup out of pure capitalistic expression with the end goal of making money? Or is it to fulfill one’s personal goals, dreams, passions? In either case, there will be a problem and a solution, so this questions starts even before the question of what the problem is that you’re addressing. This question is something closer to solving the equation of the meaning of life. There’s no wrong or right answer, but, I would argue that the motivation does have some influence on both 1) how much effort one will put in before giving up/accepting failure, and 2) the long term sustainability of the business. Why?
The reason is that money making machines follow simple laws. Any VC will ask for a list of metrics, each one representing a factor of that startup’s market potential. But what if the startup was not designed purely as a moneymaking machine? Is it possible for it to be successful? I would say, absolutely. This is how any successful artist, musician, or actor gets their fame. By taking a risk and not following the conventional route of success. Startups have become just another rat race, risk free — whoever can solve the problem with the best metrics for growth and revenue. It’s a puzzle and you just have to fit into the empty slot. That’s one way to do it, sure. But this also relies heavily on trends, which change. If your metrics are based on the existence of a large market, ask yourself whether that market is actually substantial, or just hype. Many startups, including those who enable them (VCs etc) fall into the trap of buying into hype. “Invest in blockchain! Invest in machine learning! These things are trendy and although we don’t understand how they work technically, we know people will buy them because they’re trendy.”
Do you see the logical error here? Invest in the trend because it’s trendy, not because it’s substantial. That’s where the theory breaks apart. Startups are rarely a science, and if they were, we could expect established companies to provide those solutions for us. Established companies are great at innovating without risk. A startup which intends to innovate without risk will either be 1) crushed by an incumbent with more R&D funds, or 2) be crushed by hype and the insubstantiality of their solution, once they realize that the market which they targeted disappeared when the trend shifted with the wind.
That’s why we should stop thinking of startups as a science. We should start investing in substance over style. We should start building machines out of passion and not pure monetary potential, because that passion is the only thing that does not risk losing its value with the change in market trends. It’s also the only thing that pushes us to take the risk despite all logic. That’s the only risk we know is worth taking, but one which we cannot validate with predictive metrics. And how do we know this? Why do we still take the risk? Because we know ourselves better than anybody else. Anyone who has a stake in your startup will want to minimize their own risk by judging factors external to yourself. But only you know what you’re capable of. Don’t water yourself down for the sake of others’ risk mitigation. Know yourself. Follow your passion. Build something with real substance.
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