This article is not an attack on individuals companies. It is, instead, a critique of a startup culture that promulgates a certain, restrictive definition of ‘success’. A definition that leads many entrepreneurs down a path the consequences of which many are not truly aware of when they start down it.
This article is for founders who want to do work that matters, to build a company that lasts & who are willing to put the work in to build strong foundations for long-term success.
Most of us get into entrepreneurship to have control over our own destiny. To become more free. To find a greater sense of purpose.
Yet many of us find ourselves hurtling down a path with no clear way back. We feel confined, losing control of how we spend our time & how we build our business. Ironically, sometimes we find ourselves less free running our own company than we did working for somebody else.
Because, when we start out, that path we start wandering down seems pretty simple. We take a left instead of a right. As we continue walking, we can turn back pretty easily. We can even look back and see the turning we took.
Yet the further we go, the further it is to see where we started out from, and the harder it is to turn back.
But what makes us take a left, rather than a right?
Well, without maybe even being aware of it, at its core it comes down to how we define one word:
Generally your company will start out with a big, grandiose, exciting vision.
Changing /millions/ of lives. Building the next /big/ thing. /Disrupting/ whole industries.
Most founders understand that a vision directs us and motivates us.
Yet what few founders consider is what that vision of success really entails.
Obviously, you want our startup to ‘succeed’. But to succeed at what exactly? And how?
What do you really envisage when you think of the word ‘success’?
Are you referring to success as building a profitable business? If so, just for the short-term so you can sell? Or over the long-term of 5-10 years?
Are you referring to fame and fortune? To selling the business asap so you can pocket a few million for a few years of effort?
Is it simply to get through the year and hit your growth targets, so you can raise the next round of investment? And then hope to do the same the year after?
Without a clear definition of what precisely we want to achieve with all of our efforts, we end up taking that left turning without even really thinking about it.
Without even defining a clear vision for ourselves & our company. We just see where the road takes us, drifting along at the whim of fortune - and other interests - that buffet us in one direction or another.
Unfortunately, most founders are happy to avoid the potentially awkward discussions that come from being explicit and specific about what success really means to the founding team.
That’s because it can reveal stark, sometimes insuperable, differences in what success looks like that could derail the business before it even builds its first product.
So, as with many things in life, we kick it down the road to deal with later - or hoping it just sorts itself out - with the problem only becoming acute when it’s too late to change:
With many founders & employees are demotivated, frustrated, left feeling like what they envisaged as success for the business is slipping away from them.
Yet it is vital to the longevity of your business to have this potentially uncomfortable discussion. To take a clear stand on what type of you want to build & how you want to build it, as whatever definition of ‘success’ we ascribe to, inform our actions. And our actions inform the outcome of our business.
When you focus on success in the short-term, for example, just hitting some arbitrary targets investors have set you for growth, you focus your endeavours on fulfilling those growth targets - for the most part at the expense of long-term growth & sustainability.
You plough money into paid acquisition using Facebook or Google ads just to boost your numbers. To make yourself - and your investors - feel a little better about yourselves, rather than worrying about how you will retain and grow your customer base once the money runs out.
When you look at the long-term, on the other hand, you tend to focus upon strategies that are sustainable in the long-term (both for growing our customer base, as well as improving our product metrics). This may mean slower growth, but it means stable growth. Growth that is robust & has longevity.
Rather than pissing your money away on ads, instead focus on creating value:
Building a marketing funnel that is generous, that provides value, that makes people trust you.
Building a great product that provides enough value for your customers that they are willing to pay & stick around to use your product.
But the model is broken.
Too many startups focus on the short-term through their own volition. They go for broke, betting everything on reaching the next stage of investment, rather than building with patience & persistence.
And startup culture actively encourages - and makes its money off the back of - this seemingly fixed path to success.
In my Berlin co-working alone, there’s:
- Factory: The co-working itself, named after the old factory that it was built upon, but also reinforcing this accepted belief that startups should be built & pumped out into the real world on a mass, industrial scale
- The Next Big Thing: An accelerator directly playing up to our sense of ego
- Entrepreneurs First: An accelerator programme with a name that even suggests that, with a gradually turning tide against the investment model many startups proscribe to, they have actually needed to position themselves to clearly (at least in theory) prioritise the needs & interests of the founders themelves. How this works in practice with the vested interests of the accelerator programme themselves, as well as investors they attempt to invest in their founders, is another question
So we find ourselves 1) driven by our natural tendency to let our ego lose, envisaging ‘the next big thing’ and the power, fame and fortune that would entail, and 2) driven on further by accelerator programmes and investors and startup publications and co-working spaces that all proscribe to - and benefit from - this model.
So it’s no wonder you find yourself in this group, not asking questions that you probably should be asking. Caught up in the excitement and novelty of it all. And if you do find yourself in this group, as I did with my first business a few years ago, then ask yourself:
/Whose interest is it really in? Is it in mine as a founder, to accelerate my business & go big or broke as quickly as possible?/
/Or is it in the interest of these accelerator programmes & incubators to simply get as many startups through the door as quickly as possible to quickly weed out those who have potential for massive growth & those who don’t?/
The others are cast aside as a necessary by-product of their success. The accelerator doesn’t mind. It will still make its profit of the one or two that eventually exit (if they survive four or five rounds of Venture Capital investment that lead to a potential exit).
Being the next big thing is fine. If that’s what you really want. If that’s really what you started out with the intention of building.
But I suspect the fame & fortune that drives you towards that may mask something more profound, more motivational, more linked to the sense of purpose all of us crave as humans.
A thing much harder to pin down.
A sense of freedom & control over your own life, a voice that may be shut out against the seeming inevitability of investment & hyper-growth & always feeling a little manic and out of control.
But just remember, that voice is still there. It’s trying to call you back to what you really want to do. What kind of company you really want to build. What kind of people you want to work with. What kind of work relationships you want to have. What kind of life you want to live.