Changing the world by creating your own startup can be intense and exhausting, but also extremely rewarding. More people would probably dare to give it a shot if they knew what took me fifteen years in the trenches to figure out: The entrepreneurial thing is not just for bro-grammers; you don’t, actually, need a great idea to get started; cash is a nice-to-have, and team is *everything*.
Fallacy no. 1: You have to wait for the perfect idea
Most great companies I know of are built around ideas that only vaguely resemble whatever got the founders inspired originally. It can commonly take years of tinkering and interacting with the world outside of the garage, before you start being able to articulate your core concept in a reasonably clear manner. So don’t sit around and wait for that aha-moment, just step into the fray and start learning what will work.
Fallacy no. 2: You can do it on your own
Startup life needs to be a messy noisy process because it’s all about figuring out the problem and the solution at the same time. And if you’re a straight white male, which sadly most startup founders still are, please understand that diversity isn’t a nice-to-have. Finding co-founders that are different from you in as many ways as possible, will make your team smarter and your product better. Because high quality ideation is the secret sauce of any successful startup and you don’t get that unless you have diversity; you need contrasting views of the world in order to break out of the bubble of predictability. Also, co-founders and early stage employees will become a second family that you’ll need when the ride gets rocky, which inevitable it will. Team is everything.
Fallacy no. 3: You need to be a schooled engineer
In the early stages of building a company, curiosity and people-skills often beats technical excellence. You can pick up a lot of valuable stuff at school, sure, but it’s also true that the best students are the ones likely to seek safe employment, while startups are mostly founded by drop-outs and hacks. I myself have made the unlikely journey of serving as CTO on the two software startups that I co-founded, without much in the way of formal technological schooling (unless a BA in media technology counts). In fact, ignorance can even be a blessing when starting out. Had I known the magnitude of the challenge ahead – as any properly schooled engineer would have – I probably wouldn’t have had enough guts to embark on the journey in the first place.
Fallacy no. 4: A startup is like any other company
Getting a startup off the ground is *nothing* like running a conventional business. If you succeed and get to scale, the world will be at your command. On the flip side, stakes are high. The individuals that risk coming on board as your first employees instead of opting for safety, will choose to do so only to the extent that they feel your true passion. Because passionate leaders are in short supply and the inspiration it means working with them is an important edge in competing for talent. In fact, it makes more sense to think of it in terms of founding a religion than a company.
Myth no. 5: You need truckloads of cash
Stockholm has produced more unicorns per capita than any other city in the world. New companies get access to funding easier than ever and, importantly, at an earlier than ever stage. Funding deals gets a lot of media attention and one can easily be led to believe that they represent success.
But true success means getting to a product-market-fit and starting to carry your own costs. Not just because it ensures independence, but also because real and viable business is the best verification for your value proposition. Getting access to venture capital too early can easily create a false sense of having made it and obscure your understanding of how you need to skew your business in order to become truly viable, rather than just “promising” or “exciting”. Which is why you’re better off without funding in the early phases of intense ideation and iteration, processes that need to cook slowly.
Only once you’ve proved to yourself and to the market that your product solves real problems for people who are willing to pay you to make their pain go away, only then does it make sense to start focusing on attracting investors. At that point however – if you ever make it there – it’s great to have the option, since scaling is expensive.
Again, however, you might want to be careful with what you wish for. Earlier this week, Skype-founder Niklas Zennströms VC firm Atomico released its annual report State of startups in Europe. This years edition throws light on the stress levels and ensuing mental health problems of startup founders. Rich data suggests that those who have managed to self-fund (“bootstrap”) their companies are clearly more likely to see the startup journey as a predominantly positive experience.