That whole “be smart and get things done” philosophy may work (somewhat) in a quirky 40-person company with an existing business model, but when navigating the uncertainty of creating something new entirely, everything falls apart if you were taught to think you’re smart.
This week’s Orbital Bootcamp reading included a talk by Jessica Mah, co-founder of inDinero, on the journey of founding your own startup. She touches upon being a young founder, failure, getting into YC, picking the right investors, hiring and firing, and a lot of other things that are typically re-iterated by many founders. It’s all good advice, but there are a couple of points in particular that stood out to me:
1) Press = dangerous && press != signups.
I think a lot of founders (I’m certainly guilty of this) can get caught up with press. Two months ago, after only 24 hours of hacking I had somehow managed to get my face on the front page of TechCrunch. It was certainly something I wasn’t expecting, but boy did it feel good. After that came a slew of other press that talked about my VR hack that blew my ego through the roof.
Why would I want it to stop? If someone wants to interview you because they think you’re awesome why wouldn’t you do it?
Because you have a product to build. One should certainly feel accomplished for this sort of stuff, but that’s not the end of the road. For me, it was only the beginning.
2) It’s OK to Struggle
Failure, depression, and the struggles of founding your own startup are something that have recently received a little more attention and are very important. The press can talk you up for being young, raising $1 Million, and starting a company, but Jessica discusses how difficult it was to tell her friends the truth about the struggle behind starting a company.
Behind the scenes bugs are appearing in your code base, customers are frustrated, people are quitting, you’re firing people, but nobody can know this because you’re the awesome 20 year old who just launched his or her company and is going to take over the world. False. It’s hard, confusing, and frustrating and that’s ok.
3) Build Something Useful
This one may seem really obvious, but I’ve overlooked it before. I’ve certainly built useless things before. Just because something CAN be built doesn’t mean it SHOULD be built. This is something I’m working on getting better at and I’m starting to spend less time building and more time getting to know the people I’m building for. I thought I was going to spend the summer coding 24/7, but that would probably result in a product that was built entirely out of my imagination and what I thought people needed.
Jessica talks about how she and her co-founder thought they had to learn everything about accounting, take the CPA exam, and rebuild Quickbooks. A month ago I thought I’d have to rebuild and compete with some of the best 3D modeling software out there. After some customer interviews, Jessica learned that people were still using Excel and anything better than that would be a win. Talking to people is important and focusing on other people’s software limits you.
This made me think of a passage from Peter Thiel’s upcoming book Zero To One and this is what I’ll end on. This was a long post so if you didn’t read any of the stuff above at least read this:
”[…]disruption has recently transmogrified into a self-congratulatory buzzword for anything trendy and new. This seemingly trivial fad matters because it distorts an entrepreneur’s self-understanding in an inherently competitive way. The concept was coined to describe threats to incumbent companies, so startups’ obsession with disruption means they see themselves through older firms’ eyes.
If you think of yourself as an insurgent battling dark forces, it’s easy to become unduly fixated on the obstacles in your path. But if you truly want to make something new, the act of creation is far more important than the old industries that might not like what you create.”
This is how you get products like Google Glass, which assumes that consumers prize utility so much that they’re willing to look like they have no interest whatsoever in having intimate relations with another human being.
Brown struck a bit of gold, while others pan hopelessly. But to pretend that a reward is always (or even ever) commensurate with the amount of work one does is to misconstrue how the world works. If potato salad leads people to reflect on the injustices of modern American capitalism, then we really may be on to something.
A total of 5 people contacted The Fridge Whisperer for help:
- 2 people received recommendations and cooked the recommended dishes
- 2 people received recommendations but have not yet reponded with whether or not they cooked
- 1 person declared total fridge bankruptcy, and instead asked for suggestions for what to buy
To better understand why people did and did not participate, I sent out a survey; 7 people responded. Here’s a summary of the results.
Some preliminary conclusions:
- A third of this very small sample size said they did not have anything in their fridge or pantry. I suspect more people had empty fridges they just didn’t take the survey.
- Grocery shopping is convenient for most people, but only half had a regular grocery shopping schedule. The rest went whenever they felt it was necessary, which, if they did not cook, wasn’t often.
- Out of the 5 people who contacted The Fridge Whisperer, only one had a fridge that looked well-stocked.
- If people do have things in their fridge, The Fridge Whisperer is actually a helpful resource.
These results may not be statistically significant in any way, but they’ve given me a sense of the problems that really plague people who are trying to cook more. Before Experiment #1, my theory was people would cook if they only knew what to make. However, this experiment revealed that the problem is less informational and more physical in nature. People can’t cook anything if they literally don’t have anything in their fridge.
For the next experiment, I will be tacking this problem head-on by sending people some ingredients. Let’s see how it goes!
WAIT TILL YOU SEE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!
Working at a large, successful company lets you keep your isolation. If you choose, you can just ignore all the inconvenient facts about the world. You can make decisions based on whatever input you choose. The success or failure of your project in the market is not really that important; what’s important is whether it gets canceled or not, a decision which is at the whim of your boss’s boss’s boss’s boss, who, as your only link to the unpleasantly unpredictable outside world, seems to choose projects quasi-randomly, and certainly without regard to the quality of your contribution.