I see a consistent attitude among a lot of young entrepreneurs both technical and non-technical that I think leads to more harm than good:
They’re always in a huge rush.
They’re always in a huge rush to get the prototype out, to get it on TechCrunch, to get it to go viral, to raise money, to reach a million users in the first year, to be bought for a billion dollars the year after that, to retire to a beach somewhere before they’re 25.
And they always have a ton of reasons for why they’re in a rush:
“It’s a market opportunity that’s huge and I’m the first person to realize it so I need to move as quickly as possible to take advantage of it before competitors swoop in and claim it.”
“If we don’t get it done by the time I graduate then I’ll have to get a job so I only have a limited time to make it work.”
“I want to prove whether or not I can do it so I know if it’s a legitimate career path. So I’m giving myself 6 months to make it happen otherwise I’m going to do finance.”
“The funding climate is great right now and I want to raise money before it goes away.”
“When I graduate I don’t want to have to move back in with my parents so I either need to raise money for this, or make enough revenue to live on. If I can’t do one of those by June I’m going to have to find a job and shut it down.”
These rationalizations play off of the way an entrepreneur “should” think: Move as quickly as possible at all times, do not pass go, do not collect $200. If you’re a real entrepreneur you’re only going to experience success by throwing yourself 100% into your idea from the very beginning even if you have no experience or skills and very little else other than manufactured conviction.
Moving as “quickly” as possible feels good. It feels productive. But ultimately I think being in a rush often slows you down.
A few weeks ago I was talking to someone who wants to work on a startup to teach people how to code.
His thesis was that there aren’t enough coders because the technical education that you get from college is either non-applicable or inaccessible and expensive. He thought it would be good for the economy and a big business opportunity to build a company that could help young people learn programming skills online.
I buy that. Even though plenty of companies already do this, he had a specific international market in mind that he wanted to apply the idea to.
The problem? He’s a non-technical MBA and currently going through the process of finding someone to build the site for him.
It struck me as odd that someone non-technical would want to build a site to teach people how to program, but not entirely outlandish, so I asked, “If you really want to do this as a non-programmer, doesn’t it give you the opportunity to teach yourself to code first and then build your startup around the methods that helped you learn to do it?”
“Yes,” he said. “That’s true. And I am teaching myself to code. But we need to get this done as soon as possible so I need to find someone to work on it now because it could take a year or so before I’m good enough to build it myself.”
This is a very standard response, and it may actually be true for this particular guy. He seemed smart and may end up being successful building this company (I certainly hope so). But what happens to a lot of young entrepreneurs in a rush is that it leads them to ignore doing the one thing that will help them the most: building tangible skills.
They’re so focused on the artificial time constraints they set themselves and so convinced that what they’re currently working on is The Next Big Thing that learning skills like programming or designing or sales seems worthless.
I don’t blame them, either. If I actually only had six months to get The Next Big Thing off the ground I wouldn’t have bothered learning skills either – it would be a waste of time.
But what the people working on these ideas understand intellectually but not emotionally is that in a world of uncertainty, their special beautiful perfect concept that you need to sign three NDAs to see, will almost certainly fail.
By emotional understanding, I mean that they may know intellectually – i.e. from reading, or from hearing stories from other entrepreneurs – that their project has small chances of success. But knowing something intellectually usually has very little bearing on your behavior. When you know something emotionally – like you know that your project is unlikely to succeed because you’ve failed before the ball game becomes different. That kind of knowledge will change your behavior (hopefully).
But, as a young entrepreneur, when you do truly understand that your project has very little chances of success the only thing that becomes valuable is the personal capital you take from it. The only thing that matters is what you learn.
As a good friend of mine used to say, “It’s not really about this project. It’s not even about the next one. It’s about the one you do in five years. It’s about being able to execute perfectly on that one because you’ve done it and failed so many times before.”
In an article called That ‘Big Break’ well-known screenwriter Terry Rossio talks about his experience breaking in to the movie business:
“When I was twenty-one years old, I actually had a pretty brilliant observation. (I remember this observation distinctly, as it stood out in the relative wasteland of stupidity that was my thinking at that age.)
I made the observation that anyone who worked at a job for ten years invariably became an expert at that job. Didn’t matter the person, didn’t matter the field. Grocery clerk, college professor, machinist, airline pilot — after ten years of trying to do something, it seemed like you couldn’t help but end up knowing how to do it…
Since I [was] going to be working and studying screenwriting for ten years, that took some of the pressure off. It doesn’t make sense to kick yourself after failing at something for four years, when the path you’re on is designed to take ten. This allowed a period of time to undertake an analysis and exploration of the business, the techniques, the craft, the history, etc. Step by step, from style to format to character to concept to theme, etc. In other words, we gave ourselves room to practice. And in that practicing, we learned the elements needed to construct a good screen story.”
This passage resonated with me a lot, because it’s the exact opposite of the “rush” mindset. It’s not that Terry Rossio was lazy, or incompetent, or a coward that he didn’t run around at twenty-one trying to sell his script before he graduated college and had to get a “real” job.
It was that he looked at things on such a long time horizon that something like having to get a job to pay the bills didn’t faze him enough to make him “rush.”
And it was precisely because he gave himself the time to become a great screenwriter that he ended up actually creating enough space for himself to build the skills to become one.
If it takes 10 years to learn how to write a great script, what makes us so sure that it doesn’t take 10 years to become a great entrepreneur?
Here’s an interesting – if a bit anecdotal – piece of evidence for the truth of what I’m saying. Let’s take a look at the current Forbes 30 under 30 – the collection of the “brightest stars” Forbes can find under the age of thirty. Of the people representing the Tech category – one which is supposedly the domain of young hotshots – what do you think the age distribution is?
Half under 25 and half over 25? Nope.
60% over 25 and 40% under 25? Wrong again.
Of the 30 teams of co-founders on the list, only THREE, were composed solely of people under the age of 25. That means that 27 of the 30 or 88% of teams were run by people in at least their mid-twenties.
More tellingly, EIGHTEEN of those teams, or well over half, has at least one co-founder who is 28 or 29.
The verdict: It takes a while to do this stuff. In fact, to build anything valuable will take years. So if you’re young and have no experience, spending six months learning skills like programming and design and sales isn’t a waste of time. It’s an investment.
It’s worth looking deeply into why you’re saying things like:
- I have to raise money before X date
- I have to get to ramen profitability before I graduate otherwise I’ll have to get a job and shut it down
- I’ll have to stop working on this and get a job because I don’t want to move in with my parents after I graduate
Sometimes those are real and legitimate concerns. Many parents can’t afford for their newly college graduated kids to move back in with them. Many people don’t have enough savings to give running a company a shot without reaching ramen profitability or raising money fairly quickly.
But for many people those things are just excuses to “rush” around. Do you really have to get a job right away? Or are you just trying to avoid embarrassment at having to move back in with your parents for a little while?
How much do you really want to do this?
And even if you do have to get a job – most of us do at some point – is that really the end of your entrepreneurial career? It’s not like working 9-5 precludes doing a startup.
As Gary Vaynerchuk likes to say: “7 to 2 in the morning is plenty of time to do damage.”
If you have to get a job then try to work for someone you respect who will teach you what you need to know to become a good entrepreneur. Failing that, just become a doorman.
Not to denigrate the work they do – but in the right situation doormen have essentially the perfect occupation for the still-learning entrepreneur. At the right building they are basically paid to sit for long hours behind a desk and occasionally buzz people through or sign someone in.
It’s great because during the time between when you actually have to do things, you can learn skills. You can learn how to code, learn design, or basically hone whatever entrepreneurial skill you need. Obviously actually building a product at your job might be a little sticky – but it’s something you might be able to work out with your employer (I don’t know the intricacies of the doorman profession).
Having to get a job is not an excuse to invent time pressure for yourself to succeed. Your life does not end when you work 9 to 5. It just forces you to manage your time better.
If you’re a young entrepreneur working on a startup I’d encourage you to think to yourself:
If I had 10 years to do this what would I be working on right now?
If I take away all of the external, invented time pressure what kinds of skills would I need to succeed at this long term?
And most importantly:
Why am I in such a rush?