What you’re working on is a project, not a startup
The harsh truth behind entrepreneurial motivation
If the best way to learn something is through making mistakes, I may just be a genius by now.
I’m writing this to share some of the biggest mistakes I’ve made on my professional journey up to now, to 1) acknowledge them so that I do not make them again, and 2) to hopefully help others avoid making similar mistakes in their own journey.
The biggest and most important mistake I made was: not knowing what a startup actually was.
Depending on who you ask, there may be a difference in opinions on this; some having to do with company size, amount of funding received, whether it’s a private or public company, whether it’s dynamically scalable, and so on.
But for our purposes — you and me, the founders of early-stage startups — let’s make the definition very, very clear:
What your working on is a project, and not a startup, until it generates its first dollar of revenue.
This just makes things easy. Firstly, calling something a startup means that it’s a company where you work. If you are a founder developing a product from scratch, you do not work at your startup; it’s not paying you. It’s a project.
Let’s put funding aside for a moment, because in the real world, funding occurs after there is a validated revenue stream (ever watch Shark Tank?).
Before you’ve made any revenue, you cannot hire any employees. Therefore, even if you have people working with you, you are not a CEO. They are collaborators, and you are a project coordinator.
Even if you’ve registered your company, that doesn’t make it a startup, as long as it doesn’t have any customers, and is not generating revenue. Then, it’s just a bureaucratically complicated, expensive project.
When you earn revenue, that’s what proves what you’re working on, could, some day, feasibly, be a company which could create enough value as to provide a living for you, as the founder, and if you scale well, for a growing number of employees.
Before that, it’s a project.
I’m not saying these things to be an arrogant d***bag. I’m saying them because those were all the things I did.
I registered my project as a company.
I printed business cards with my project name and position on it (“Founder”, not “CEO”)
I considered myself an entrepreneur, and acted like it.
Don’t be like me.
My project never got off the ground. It’s still in existence as a web-application people can use. But there has been no validated revenue model, and there will never be, because the scale of users using it is not increasing. This could be because it was a bad idea in the first place. But it could also be because I lost interest before it was a fully boiled egg, and half-assed it at the very end just so I’d have something to show for my efforts. That, in turn, could be because it was never a viable startup idea, and that became clear to me too late, or because I simply changed in the direction of my professional interests.
These things are not just a freak combination of unlikely circumstances that happened to befall me in a perfect storm of coincidence. These are the things that happen all too often when people get ahead of themselves and consider their idea more developed than it already is. If you mentally convince yourself that you are a founder, you’ll be too stubborn to listen to people like me (the me writing this article, not the former me, who is you now) who are trying to help you, and accuse them of trying to dilute your aspirations, when in reality, they are trying to ground you. Because at the end of the day, the universe doesn’t care about your aspirations. At the end of the day, the only thing it cares about is whether your project can make money or not. Only that will determine your fate.
Startups are serious things. They are not to be taken lightly. An idea can be a catalyst for something great — something which can define your career and make you successful. Or, it can be a game of cat and mouse — a chase for success. The difference between one and the other, is that in one, the product is something that is put out into the world, gains traction, and contributes value to people’s lives. In the other, the product is not the app or tool you developed; the product is YOU — a wiser, perhaps even jaded version of yourself. The outcome of the journey was not a career milestone, but a personal one. A humbling one. One which will force you to shed your ego and self-importance and realize that startups were never supposed to be about making me successful. Instead they are about contributing something to the world. Something that makes people happier, smarter, more organized, more efficient. Then, success is nothing but a side effect.
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