In the technology economy, startup entrepreneurs have become something akin to rock stars. Whether it’s bloggers swooning at Ryan Holmes’ genuine humble graciousness amid the rampant growth of his business, Hootsuite, or Dennis Crowley appearing on TV commercials for Best Buy coyly hawking his baby, Foursquare, it’s hard not to take these moments for what they are: celebrations of success.
We fawn over exciting and successful companies, but to bring things back to earth it helps to remember that for every one of these wins, there are nine miserable failures. Such accolades are a few of the juicy rewards that come from brilliant conception, execution, perspiration and—yes—luck. As such, it’s important for would-be tech tycoons to maintain perspective on success and entrepreneurship; and to enter the fray eyes wide open about what the life of an entrepreneur really entails.
In August, we denizens of the technology industry gathered with the similarly afflicted from Silicon Valley at the annual GROW conference in Vancouver. We got together to share ideas, know-how and connections, and to celebrate successes like 99Designs, Cheezburger, Zendesk, and PlentyOfFish. It was an opportunity to learn, mature and feel good about building the technologies that, each in their own small way, help to reshape the ways in which we work and play.
The unifying tone, if not the explicit message, of conferences like GROW is that it’s good to be an entrepreneur. For many entrepreneurs, this is true. For a few, it’s better than good—it’s awesome. Financial success is but one potential windfall of venturing out on one’s own; the others include flexibility in lifestyle, fulfilling that desire to leave “worthy evidence of your passage,” sticking it to that girl/guy who rejected you at the high-school dance, and the opportunity to develop knowledge and experience at one’s own pace. In truth, there are as many reasons to pursue one’s own business as there are lines of business to pursue.
Some ideas are too big for a startup to tackle, and some are too big for the kind of resources you can muster at the current stage of your career.
But it’s important to remember that entrepreneurship does not apply to everyone at every stage of one’s life; nor does it apply to every idea. Some ideas are too big for a startup to tackle, and some are too big for the kind of resources you can muster at the current stage of your career. Other ideas are simply “features” that are dependent on larger products or services. For these you’re best off taking them to your superiors at your present employer, Humungous Corp.
Much more importantly, we need to remind ourselves that entrepreneurship is a means, not an end. As an example of what I mean by this, I am frequently approached by young wantrepreneurs itching to own a business and asking for help and advice. I will ask them what their idea or project is: many don’t have a well-formed answer, or they have multiple ill-formed ideas that have nothing to do with their experience. I cringe. Their approach is just all wrong.
Being an entrepreneur is hard, even when you are successful. In the glossy magazines and YouTube interviews we see only the glamour of being a company founder and none of the grit. I visited Ryan Holmes unannounced not long ago and caught him napping on a well-used cot in a storage area at the Hootsuite offices. He hadn’t slept for two days.
READ: Hootsuite and the Art of Continual Product Innovation
Marshalling resources and people who, for natural reasons, don’t share the same drive as you to move a business forward can be hard. Struggling against the enormous counteracting forces that lie ahead of any startup is a physical, emotional, and financial drain. Watching friends enjoy luxurious vacations while you toil in obscurity takes its toll on your sanity. A mild form of bipolar disorder is required to—or results from—containing the dissonance of where you want to be and where you are. And there’s no more solitary feeling than risking your entire well-being in order to push through an idea that might be slightly before its time or is disruptive to the status quo.
Would you wish this adversity upon a loved one? Would you enjoy watching your children enduring such hazard? Most mothers would say “no.” Mine does.
And just because you are the smartest guy in the room does not mean you will be successful. Charles Goodyear patented the process for making vulcanized rubber, but never made a penny from his innovation. Nikola Tesla pioneered alternating current (AC) electricity and Johannes Gutenberg brought us the printing press, but both died penniless and shamed. Many of history’s greatest innovators died with arrows in their backs. We revere them now but in their time they were miserable outcasts.
So that idea, that compelling vision, that unified chaos theory you’ve been whittling away on had better be a really good one. And it had better be one you are willing and able to drag through the valley of the shadow of death after three days with no water, because that’s the sort of negative inertia that the world, which didn’t wake up this morning demanding the fruits of your genius, will throw at you. And if you are in it just to be on the cover of Forbes, or to be the toast of a tech conference, or to be the subject of M&A speculation in the Twitterverse, then that’s just about when you’re likely to pack it up and go home.
In fact, many successful entrepreneurs were dragged kicking and screaming into that lifestyle after trying and failing to germinate their brilliant idea at their former employer (the latter of which is certainly the less risky, if less financially rewarding, option). The pioneering inventors of the silicon-based transistor that kick-started the entire technology revolution found their ideas falling on deaf ears at their employer and became known as the “traitorous eight” when they defected to form their own company, Fairchild Semiconductor. None among them knew how to write a business plan or had a spreadsheet detailing cash flow and burn. What they did have was a lot of experience and a truly great and unique idea scribbled on a single piece of paper.
Which is to illustrate that when you know what you’re doing, when the object of your pursuit is worthy, and when you are able to very clearly articulate your chase for an audience beyond your parents, siblings, friends, and uncles—you’re probably ready.
One piece of advice I give to would-be entrepreneurs is to get a job at a startup prior to embarking on one’s own.
One piece of advice I give to would-be entrepreneurs is to get a job at a startup prior to embarking on one’s own. There are two reasons for this. First, as startups are usually tiny, startup employees get a front row seat to the business process and will be able to observe how it should or should not be done. Second, they will experience roughly 25% of the drama and buffeting endured by that company’s founder and, it doing so, their mettle will be tested.
My second piece of advice is to find a mentor—preferably, one who isn’t afraid to deliver the truth, however brutal. You want someone who will not drink the Kool-Aid along with you and your peers, has some hard-won experience in the field, and who sees promise in your talent, good looks and enthusiasm. The easiest way to develop a mentor is to help them be successful in their careers by working with them.
In the meantime, there is nothing shameful about keeping your day job. That day job has a fortuitous advantage over entrepreneurship in that it pays your rent, puts food in the larder and keeps Mom from worrying about you. And perhaps more importantly, your day job helps you to develop skills, helps you to grow your business network, and is constantly bombarding you with problems that need fixing—just one of which might flower to become your Big Idea.
Ian Bell is a Vancouver-based veteran of 13 years building and helping technology startups in the US & Canada, and most recently founded Tingle and RosterBot. A former Apple Research Fellow and SFU graduate, he worked at Cisco Systems and Telus before going rogue. Check out his blog.