Why can’t most startup founders get to serve even 1 user/customer? Why don’t most founders pass the idea stage? Why are most founders anxious, depressed, exhausted and giving up? Why is it that working too hard doesn’t necessarily guarantee startup success? Too many questions and, believe it or not, too many answers leading to too many debates, too much writing and consequently a lot more confusion. Why is starting startups so hard? I am purposely focusing on starting rather than building because though I don’t have the numbers to back it up, I am confident that most founders fail to take the first step. As compared to this group, few are those who execute then quit. By execute, I refer to founders who took the initial steps of turning their ideas into solutions and have gone through 2 or more iterations before giving up. Why most founders don’t see the start line?
Too Much Information
Hundreds of books, tens of thousands of articles, thousands of videos, presentations, conferences, webinars, bootcamps, incubators, advisors, consultants, etc. Tell you what, if you got a chance to explore 20% of those startup resources, you should demand a PhD in startup development. The question is, do you need a PhD to build a scalable, profitable and valuable startup? The answer is clearly no and the proof is in the background of over 90% of existing highly successful founders. Too much information is in my opinion one of the main reasons behind failure (to execute). It creates confusion, panic, exhaustion, worry, and disinterest. Instead, startup founders should identify and select 3-5 trustworthy sources (books, blogs, lectures), get equipped with enough information to take the initial steps, and acquire relevant knowledge as startup progress is underway.
Too Much Advice
For every successful startup, there should be at least 10 different ways to achieve the same level of success. The path is not linear, the right decisions are not predefined, and the criteria for success is also not preset. What this simply means is that no two advisors will recommend the same thing twice. They can both be right but who’s the victim? You. Listening too much is a source of confusion when ironically it is meant for clarity. Furthermore, the best advisors are those who have been where you stand and know how to replicate their success. Nonetheless, you will rarely be able to follow their exact steps for reasons you will find below in the post. The best they can do is ask the right questions and lead you to make the best decisions. There is no way out to paving your own path and it can only happen by doing and not listening day and night.
Dreaming Too Big
It’s counterintuitive but very true and here is how it goes. I find that most first-time founders start upside down. They dream about building a billion-dollar company but realize the time, sacrifice and effort it takes to make such dream come true so they aim for a 100-million-dollar startup, after all 100 million dollars is a huge amount, but realize it is still extremely hard so they shrink the amount thinking that it will get easy. Most founders are obsessed about serving a million client when they can’t get 10, 5, or even 1 paid customer. Envision the future, dream big but keep your feet on the ground. Otherwise you’ll, sometimes unintentionally, cut corners, make unethical decisions and give up sooner than you’d think.
With these in mind, also know that
I Kinda Want To Start A Startup Doesn’t Work
I kinda want to have a baby doesn’t work either. A baby needs attention, care and time to grow. In the saddest cases where babies are undesired, someone else in the family, community, or government will be there. Startup effort can almost never be transferable. The moral of the story is, if there is no will, entrepreneurs are almost literally building to fail.
Some Things You Can’t And Will Never Be Able To Control
Take 10 minutes of your time to search for highly qualified startup teams with tons of money in funding by prestigious venture capital firms and still managed to close doors. Notice here that this wasn’t due to team members’ qualifications, their effort or money, so what is it then? Here is a quote from Vinod Khosal, a billionaire investor.
“In my decades of encouraging entrepreneurs and innovation, I have learned that an entrepreneur probably only controls approximately 30 to 40-percent of the factors that affect their success. Competitors and environmental circumstances often make up the rest.”
Take the unknown, embrace it and focus on the things you can control while acknowledging that there will always be factors beyond your control.
You Can’t Do It Alone. No Matter How Hard You Try
Nothing will and should ever stop you from taking the first steps but the first step is unlike the 5th or 10th milestone. If you don’t have a cofounder, don’t wait or spend all your time searching one. Go out there, build value, make significant progress such as validating the need for your solution, acquiring users, generating revenue, getting investors’ interest, key partners, getting accepted in an incubator, etc. while nurturing relationships with potential cofounders. About why every entrepreneur should have at least one co-founder, Paul Graham says, “The low points in a startup are so low that few could bear them alone.”
If You’re Lucky, You’ll Get It Right The 3rd Time
Building a startup is a marathon. Not the kind you’d have to run straight for a few miles and the end line is there waiting for your arrival. Hurdles in different shapes and sizes will be on your way. You’ll have tons of questions and concerns; you’ll make mistakes that set you back but teach you how to not fall again; you’ll push hard and realize there is no end to pushing hard until you start seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. If you keep believing and putting in the effort, I guarantee you will reach the end of the tunnel but don’t expect it happening the day you decide to start the journey. The numbers say: first time entrepreneurs have an 18% chance of succeeding (from idea to exit) as opposed to 30% for those who failed twice or more (Gompers et al., 2010). Furthermore, according to a 2007 study by Bengtsson, about 60% of entrepreneurs receive funding for their early stage startup when it is their second or later venture as opposed to 45% for first time entrepreneurs.
In sum, get going, get started, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, don’t be afraid to fail either, the odds are in your favor.
You’ll Most Likely Change Direction. Be Open
This fact has little to do with experience. Your original idea, vision, mission, plan and strategy are likely to change in a direction you possibly never thought to follow initially and it is normal. Being open for change, listening to users, and incorporating feedback are all you can do. Just focus on what you can an need to do and control.
The prerequisites for startup execution is not a bachelors in entrepreneurship, an MBA, having gone through an incubator or accelerator, or one to two years long startup education (books, articles, videos, etc.). It’s the execution that matters. Knowledge has no value if not used to build startup value. Instead,
- Spend quality time filtering and selecting trustworthy sources for familiarity with startup development and entrepreneurship.
- Stick to these sources and find a mentor for follow up questions and guidance.
- Get to work, make mistakes, build relationships and consequently improve your odds of success.
- While keeping in mind that perseverance is an irreplaceable success ingredient. To persevere, you need interest and willingness.
- Don’t worry about what you can’t control. Focus on what you can.
- You don’t need a cofounder to begin but will definitely need one eventually. Focus on building startup value and relationships simultaneously.
- If you didn’t get it right the first time, know that you’re building a bridge for the next or third time.
- Be open for change even if it’s major as long as it keeps you moving in the right direction; solving problems and building products people need.
What else in your opinion makes starting startups hard and what lessons can we learn?