If I had a nickel for every time a developer came to me with a startup idea I’d be a rich man. It happens so often that I feel compelled to tell you right now that your idea probably sucks and your company is most likely going to fail. And that’s if it even gets off the ground. I’m not just trash talking here. I’ve seen it, I’ve done it, and I’m seeing others make the same mistakes. If you want to avoid the default outcome for your precious startup – which is failure – then stop networking, life hacking, and hustling for just a second and read some real advice from a regular person on not just why you’re going to fail but possibly how to avoid it. Oh, you’re not a regular person you say? Well thinking you’re somehow special is problem number one. For the everyone else willing to put their special snowflake egos aside for a moment, let’s go over how to not suck and fail.
The big issue with most “founders” is that they have egos that are disproportional to their actual accomplishments. Most of the guys I meet in this space think they’re too good to work for someone else. Or, to put it another way they “just can’t” work for someone else. They have to be the boss.
Let me enlighten you entitled folks. I’m not the kind of guy who takes well to having bosses either but that doesn’t mean I literally can’t stand to work for someone else. No, instead I put myself in situations where I might report to someone but I’m still my own boss. There’s a difference. It’s subtle but there’s a difference between having a boss and reporting to someone. When you have a boss you’re a drone. You get tasks, complete them, then move on to the next task. When you report to someone you’re let in on someone else’s vision and goals then it’s up to you to work with them to make those goals a reality. You have freedom to work within some constraints but you’re the guy steering the boat for the most part.
I have a sneaking suspicion that the reason most people refuse to make the distinction between having a boss and reporting to someone is that they’re simply not skilled enough to do it. If given the freedom to work a problem on their own without the rigid constraints of directions and direct reports to “the boss” they’d likely fail. So they just skip that step and go right to working for themselves because it’s easier and more comfortable. They justify this inability to climb the corporate ladder and get to the point where they are their own boss with the “I can’t work for someone else” excuse. I call bullshit. It’s not that you can’t work for someone else, it’s that you can’t work for someone else. In other words, you’re not allergic to it, you’re just literally incapable of competently doing a job without someone holding your hand.
About those ideas…
Even if you aren’t allergic to working for others you may just have really “innovative” ideas. Groundbreaking stuff. You’re going to be the next Elon Musk, just watch, right? Your ideas suck most of the time. A big mistake people make is generating these really unique ideas. Things no one has ever done before. That sounds like a great idea at first but most of the time it’s not. The problem with a new idea is that there’s no way to validate it other than to execute on it and, most likely, fail. And when you fail will it be because of your idea? Not always but more times than not. The rest of the time it’s because your execution sucked or you didn’t have the technical chops to code it properly, or code it fast enough.
Next time try looking at an existing industry and fixing a problem with it. Uber is not a new idea. It’s basically democratized taxi rides. What problem does Uber solve? It’s not solving the problem of getting a ride when you’re drunk at 2am. Taxis already do that. They’re just creating a way for every day folks to make some extra money on the side. Once they got people comfortable with the idea of riding in a car marked with an Uber sticker instead of a yellow cab they were like “So we got people driving around town in cars… what can they be doing when there’s no one to pick up?” and Uber Eats was born. Not a new idea. GrubHub can ask themselves the same question tomorrow. They can say “hey, what can our delivery drivers do when they aren’t delivering food?” and come up with “they can give people rides around town”. My point is, a good idea comes from an already existing market that has a flaw that can be fixed. Competition is good. You want to be a competitor. To be the only company in an industry is a bad sign unless you’re making money hand over fist (which is hardly ever the case).
Stop fixating on investments
You’re not getting a million dollars in venture capital or angel investors to run your company full time. You’re going to have to do it on the side while you work a real job. Investors are glorified loan sharks. Sure they have a vested interest in your success but so does your bank when they give you a loan. If you can’t get a small business loan for your idea then good luck getting an investment.
Please don’t offer equity to compensate for lower salaries
If you start a startup and ask me to join it I’m going to ask you to pay me market value. If you can’t do that then you have the option of finding either financially retarded people to take the job or just inferior developers in general. Equity is nice and all but it’s fake money until it isn’t. A paycheck every two weeks is real. Your 2% equity stake (that could totally be worth 5 million dollars in 2 years!) is not appealing because I need to pay the mortgage every month, not in 2 years.
Your friends and family will lie to you
Don’t ask your friends and family for validation on your product. Offer it to them. See if they’ll use it. Actions speak louder than words. When people actually use what you’ve built – consistently – then you have validation. Until that time you’re being lied to. No one wants to kill your dreams. That’s what I’m here for. To bring you back down to Earth.
Being the CEO, CTO, or Founder means nothing
I know how to use VistaPrint too. The greater the title you give yourself the more douchey you sound. If you tell me you’re the CEO of a company then I expect you have an office and at least a handful of employees working on challenging problems. If you’re the CEO of a company with no permanent home, with no real product yet (after six months) then your title is a joke. If you’re the CEO and you’re working somewhere else on the side then you’re not a CEO, you just have a side business.
It’s okay to run a small company. The word startup makes me cringe these days because of how many amateurs there are starting them. Small businesses are awesome! They generate actual money. They charge people money for a product or service. They have a real revenue model. A free service that will be running ads maybe and run on investment for now is not a revenue model. That’s a joke.
Stop reading and start doing
Get the fuck off LifeHacker, Hacker News, and whatever other productivity/business porn you’ve been reading to get your nuggets of wisdom and plans for your company and get back to basics. Are you running in the black or green? No? Then fix that first.
There’s no shortage of startup porn out there designed just for people like you. To make you feel like you’re part of the club. Like you know the struggle. But the people who write that shit know your weak spots and exploit them. The people who write about how their startup succeeded or why it failed, well those people aren’t writing for you. They’re writing for people like them. And you’re not like them. You’re not going to be like them until you’ve had what they’ve had and/or lost what they’ve lost. You can’t do that if you’re just daydreaming all day and calling yourself CEO. I can wear a Burger Kind crown but that doesn’t make me the King of my local Burger King franchise. And that’s kind of what’s happening out there right now. People are selling the promise of a dream and poor schlubs are buying it. It’s like everyone went to Burger King, got a crown, and now there are millions of people walking around thinking they’re the Kings of Burger King.
You know, it’s okay to give up on an idea. Close a company. Start something new. I have started and ended two companies before I was 30. Neither was a startup. Both were businesses. Real people gave real money in exchange for a product or service. I would have loved to be a startup but I wasn’t. If you see what you’re doing just isn’t working, then maybe just quit. Contrary to popular belief and all of the self-esteem boosting memes out there, quitting is an option and a very realistic and viable one. Know when to quit. Besides, you’re never truly going to learn what I’m trying to teach you until you’ve tried and failed to keep a business running.
Maybe it’s geography
Like I said, I’ve started and ended two companies. I’ve worked for giant corporations and I’ve worked for two startups so far. I know the game. But maybe it works differently in Chicago. Maybe we’re a little more focused on, you know, reality here. Stuff like actual money, business models, etc. I don’t think I’m wrong, but I have been once or twice before.