[reposting this from my old Wordpress blog]
Uncertainty is at the core of human existence. We all deal with it. Most people take the route of minimizing the uncertainty of their lives as much as they can. Get a good college degree, get a secure job, pick your mate, settle down in a house, get your cars, save wisely, and you’re good to go.
Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, create more uncertainty in their quest for something else (more fulfilling life, more opportunities, more challenges, more money, etc.).
Here are some of the biggest aspects of uncertaintly for an entrepreneur:
- The problem: I’m going to create something that will solve a new problem, but I have no idea if there is a problem at all, if I’m looking at the problem the right way, if the problem is a problem for a large enough number of people, and so on.
- The solution: I think I got the problem, so now I will just solve it. But I have no idea if I have the right solution and there are so many different ways it could go.
- The market: I got the problem, I got the solution, but will I be able to get this in front of enough people? What if there’s a competitor who is able to do this faster and better? What if only a small number of people will care about my product? Etcetera.
- Me: Do I have what it takes? What if other people are better, younger, older, more talented, more experienced, have more resources, etc?
- The resources: Will I be able to get the right team, advisors?
- The money: How the hell am I going to pay for this? What if I burn through everything I have, or go in debt? What if I let other people down? How much is it going to cost to get to success? How long can I survive? If I raise funding will I be able to get the right terms?
Here’s the other crazy thing about being an entrepreneur: the challenges are endless! Within the lifespan of a startup, as soon as you overcome your current obstacle, you will be faced with the next. It’s just a ladder of freshly minted obstacles. Most likely, you’re doing something new and out of your comfort zone. On top of being forced to deal with challenges as part of your startup, chances are, you are also addicted to your challenges like crack and will seek them out as soon as the natural flow of challenges in a growing startup will slow down or end.
I think this explains why so many entrepreneurs love the topic of personal development, growth, life balance, productivity etc. To be an entrepreneur, you have to figure out some hopefully healthy way of dealing with the insane uncertainty and endless challenges.
STARTUP UNCERTAINTY IS DEMORALIZING
Startups are damn hard, emotional (everything is on the line for you) and low points are unavoidable. Paul Graham’s great essay “How Not to Die” breaks it down like this:
When startups die, the official cause of death is always either running out of money or a critical founder bailing. Often the two occur simultaneously. But I think the underlying cause is usually that they’ve become demoralized. You rarely hear of a startup that’s working around the clock doing deals and pumping out new features, and dies because they can’t pay their bills and their ISP unplugs their server.
Startups rarely die in mid keystroke. So keep typing!
If so many startups get demoralized and fail when merely by hanging on they could get rich, you have to assume that running a startup can be demoralizing. That is certainly true. I’ve been there, and that’s why I’ve never done another startup. The low points in a startup are just unbelievably low. I bet even Google had moments where things seemed hopeless.
Knowing that should help. If you know it’s going to feel terrible sometimes, then when it feels terrible you won’t think “ouch, this feels terrible, I give up.” It feels that way for everyone. And if you just hang on, things will probably get better. The metaphor people use to describe the way a startup feels is at least a roller coaster and not drowning. You don’t just sink and sink; there are ups after the downs.
Another feeling that seems alarming but is in fact normal in a startup is the feeling that what you’re doing isn’t working. The reason you can expect to feel this is that what you do probably won’t work. Startups almost never get it right the first time. Much more commonly you launch something, and no one cares. Don’t assume when this happens that you’ve failed. That’s normal for startups. But don’t sit around doing nothing. Iterate.
UNDERSTAND HOW TO MEASURE STARTUP PROGRESS
A critical event in my ability to understand and deal with the issue of extreme uncertainty in startups was coming across Eric Reis‘ talks and the Lean Startup movement. The Lean Startup philosophy describes a startup as a “human institution designed to deliver a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.”
A startup lifecycle can be broken down into 3 stages:
- Find your customer/market fit (i.e. build something people want)
- Figure out your customer acquisition strategy
Because there is so much uncertainty, it doesn’t make sense to invest heavily into building a perfect product or technology or a big sales organization. What good are any of those things, if people don’t want your product? By following that route, you’re likely to waste your limited resources and fail. Instead, entrepreneurs in stage 1 need to focus on LEARNING and learning FAST. The faster a startup can learn about the problem it’s solving, the solution it’s creating and the customers, the faster it reduces the associated uncertainty and risk and increases its chances of success.
Why is this idea critical for the psychological well being of an entrepreneur? Because it shifts the focus away from measuring progress by some obscure and unrealistic unit of “success”. Here’s an example. Let’s say you launch a product only to learn that no one cares! If you think that the measure of your progress is success, then you can assume that you’ve failed. However, if you understand that you’re measuring your learning, you will think about this product launch entirely differently. Negative feedback or indifference is learning! Hell, you’ll probably not even launch in the same way! (But that’s a whole other post.)
The idea that my goal is to learn is grounding and comforting to me, and it puts all startup activities in perspective.
- Uncertainty is the name of the startup game. Expect it and when it comes, remind yourself that it’s expected. Leave your ego out of it.
- Measure your progress in learning rather than “success”.