Thinking of running of startup? Read this first.

Whenever I get email consultation requests, it’s usually from new founders who are building some kind of startup. They’d ask me to sign an NDA (which I always refuse), claim that whatever they’re building is game-changing, tell me how much their friends and families love the concept and how they “don’t really need consultation on running a startup, but just for growth hacks because they’ve already know all there is to run one.”

So I ask them where their knowledge comes from, and the common answer I get is something along the lines of:

“We learn everything we needed to know from reading HN, startup blogs and Quora.”

If only it were that easy. Most new founders don’t realize it but running a startup is daunting, like exploring a new country. It’s impossible to set expectations for even if you’ve read about it. Reading about something and experiencing it in person almost always offers an entirely different perspective. Both are important, but one is in theory while the other is practical, hands on; at the end of the day, if you lack the experience and the ability to accurately measure the depth of what you’ve read, you’ll fail regardless of the amount of reading done.

A quick analogy would be like someone trying to understand cooking by simply trying to read about it. Instructions sound easy enough — cut this, chop that, mince that and throw it all into a pan, but to actually do it can be a lot more challenging than expected. Someone without the chance to develop the proper knife skills might end up slicing their hands when cutting a mango or avocado, or burn their fingertips not knowing how to handle a cast iron pan — things you could read about, but probably won’t realize until it’s too late.

It’s not to say reading isn’t good; it’s far from that. Reading about how to do something is great — by reading, you’re preparing yourself to better identify mistakes when they do occur and by reading, you’re accelerating your growth by building upon the knowledge of others. By reading, you’re gaining insight that you might’ve otherwise never discovered on your own. The point though is to understand that to successfully run a startup, it takes more than just reading — you can’t replace knowledge gained from a book with insights gained from experience. If all you ever do is read, you lack the perspective, the insight gained from moments taught only through actual experience. You’ll lack the a-ha! moment you need to succeed and the things you do read will provide little to no context because you lack the foundation to truly understand it and apply it.

Years ago, when I was working on a classifieds startup (yes, craigslist clone), my cofounder and I managed to get an interview for the 500startup’s incubator program. It was due to luck and a lot of hustle by stalking, building relationships with several of the 500startup mentors, one of whom had been nice enough to give us an upvote on our application. Our interview went something like this:

“Okay, I see what you guys are trying to build and it looks good, but how is it different from Craigslist?”

“It’s better than craigslist because we have a way better search. You can search by filtering new, used, color, size — ”

“I get it, but why is it better than Craigslist other than how it looks and the backend functionality? Are people going to leave Craigslist simply because your product looks and feels better? You’re better off solving a problem that people would actually leave Craigslist for. I use Craigslist a lot myself and the problems I’ve had with it are usually scams and being stood up.”

“I see what you’re saying, but I think it’s better to focus on on the design and the UX first — there’s more people who think Craigslist is hard to use than the people who get scammed.”

That was the end of our failed interview. It wasn’t months later until we realized that the 500startups partner who interviewed us had been right. We emailed our users and it turns out that what they had really wanted was a way to solve the Craigslist spam and no-show problem and that the design and backend search were just “bonuses.” Had we focused on that niche and building an audience of loyal followers instead of trying to cast a wide net and taking Craigslist on all at once, we might’ve had some kind of chance. But we didn’t, even though we were given the answer during the interview because we were too stubborn. By the time we realized what people wanted, it was already too late — we had lost the drive and the money to keep going.

The idea of focusing on a specific niche, choosing a single vertical and scaling it is common advice that most founders read about. My cofounder and I read it but we ignored that advice because we thought we didn’t have to; we believed ourselves to be the exception to the norm. We were arrogant.

And as founders, we all carry a certain amount of arrogance. We build startups and play the game because we’re in it to win. We believe that we’re solving a huge problem and that we’re going to change the world, make a dent, disrupt the industry and eventually become Zuckerberg-famous. We think that we have what it takes to outdo all of our competitors and become number one in our industry.

What we don’t realize, is that everyone, all of our competitors are thinking exactly the same thing: that we’re the best, and nobody can beat us. We don’t realize that at the end of the day, it’s not about the product so much as it is the execution. We don’t realize that most of us will never truly do anything that really impacts the industry, that we’re all just making mere copies of each other’s product with one or two superior features. We make assumptions, believe when people hear about us, they’ll switch over to our product in a heartbeat because it “just works better.” We’re often so blinded by our arrogance that we don’t see the problems that we’ve read about all along, before even writing our first line of code. We forget the lessons taught because we let our emotions get the better of us. In the midst of experiencing it, we forget the things we’ve read about.

It’s easy to to lose ourselves to arrogance. We grow too attached to what we build because of how much effort we’ve put in and like all good parents, we believe our child(product) to be special and different from everyone else’s.

Practical experience always trumps theory because by putting it in practice, we remember what we’ve learned and prevent ourselves from making the same mistake again. The knowledge we gain from reading is useful, but in order for us to draw insights from it, we have to first have the experience to discover those insights to begin with.

“All talk is just that: talk. All the words written on these pages are just that: words. If you want things to get better, take action. Don’t just talk about it. Don’t just read and think about it. Do it.” — Larry Winget

About the author

Jon Lee

I travel the world in search of lessons worth sharing. Addicted to culture shock and transparency. Currently working on heeyy and duuck.

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