Two startup truisms that are dead wrong
I like the holidays because they’re a chance to take my foot off the gas a little bit, get out of the car and reset the engine. They’re a chance to take a look at the map and make sure I’m headed in the right direction.
Over the years I’ve had a lot of conversations with some very smart people about what it takes to be successful. And as I get older, it’s interesting to get a chance to look back and see the parts of the conventional wisdom that turned out to be untrue.
I guess you can call these things myths, but really they’re statements that I can slip into a conversation with someone and have very little fear that they’ll do anything other than nod in agreement at their self-evident truth.
Two things have stuck out to me lately. The first is that the highest opportunity cost for an entrepreneur is when she’s in her early 20s. The second is that an entrepreneur has to drop every other interest in their lives except for business in order to be successful.
Myth #1: Your highest opportunity cost is your 20s.
There are certain advantages that accrue to the young: lack of financial and social obligations and more energy to get things done. But the problem with being in your early 20s is that in general you have very little idea of what the fuck is going on. Trust me, I’m 21.
Seriously though, the story of the young kid who comes out of nowhere to take his industry by storm has become incredibly ingrained in our collective consciousness. We take it so far that I know people who worry that if, by 25, they haven’t built a huge company they will be over the hill. I know people who think that if you don’t make it by 30, you just don’t have what it takes.
But we forget that the young kid with no experience striking it rich is the exception to the rule, not the rule itself. According to "The Anatomy of an Entrepreneur," a research study conducted on over 500 successful companies by the Kauffman Foundation, “the average and median age for [successful founders] when they started their current companies was 40.”
Another study by SV Angel shows that 33 percent of founders with big (500 million-plus) exits were over the age of 30. 90 percent of founders with big exits were repeat founders.
Anecdotal evidence abounds as well. Take Workday for example which was started in 2005 and IPOed this year. It was founded by David Duffield who is a sprightly 70 years old. Even Paul Graham himself, champion-in-chief of the young entrepreneur, was 30 when he started ViaWeb.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s something to be said for young entrepreneurs. I’ve been the beneficiary of that stereotype as much as anyone else. But in this particular case, the truth of the “over the hill” entrepreneur is all made up.
Myth #2: To be a successful entrepreneur you must not do anything but focus on the business.
I was having coffee with someone a few months ago when they asked me why I blog. “Most successful entrepreneurs don’t have time to spare from their business to write,” he continued. I was a bit taken aback by this, and despite the volume of evidence that says otherwise, I resolved to think about it.
After all, if I had to pick between writing and having a successful business I should pick the business, right?
Well that’s something that I’ve thought about for a long time. I’ve been programming for 10 years, but I’ve been writing for even longer. When I was in elementary school I wanted to be a professional novelist. I wrote a 90-page story in fourth grade. But I decided at the tender age of nine, that I hadn’t experienced enough to really write things of substance. And so I started programming instead.
Yes I was an over-intellectual dweeb back then too.
But that choice has stuck with me, and it’s one that I’ve come back to think about a lot. There’s a lot of pressure to pick one. I have this image of a great writer who does nothing but sit in his room all day and churn out scintillating sentence after scintillating sentence. And then I have this image of a great entrepreneur who does nothing all day but build product, sell to customers, and rake in the revenues. Sometimes I feel like I have to pick one.
After all, isn’t intense focus on one area the hallmark of someone who’s great at anything?
But if I really sit down and think about it, if I spent all day sitting alone in my room I wouldn’t have very much to write about.
The truth is that being in business has made me a more interesting writer. And likewise being a writer has made me a better businessman. It gives me a platform to build an audience to market my products to and reach interesting people that I ordinarily wouldn’t be able to get a hold of.
This sentiment isn’t unique to me. I read an article a while ago that featured a letter written by Teller (of Penn and Teller) giving career advice to a young magician.
Love something besides magic, in the arts. Get inspired by a particular poet, film-maker, sculptor, composer. You will never be the first Brian Allen Brushwood of magic if you want to be Penn & Teller. But if you want to be, say, the Salvador Dali of magic, well THERE’S an opening.
I should be a film editor. I’m a magician. And if I’m good, it’s because I should be a film editor. Bach should have written opera or plays. But instead, he worked in eighteenth-century counterpoint. That’s why his counterpoints have so much more point than other contrapuntalists. They have passion and plot. Shakespeare, on the other hand, should have been a musician, writing counterpoint. That’s why his plays stand out from the others through their plot and music. This isn’t to say that you should try to go and find two things to love so that you can merge them. That’s ridiculous. But it is to say that, in a way, the total agony of loving two things can help you be better at both. The choice between one or the other is fake. In fact, I’d venture to say that the choice is fake any time you feel forced to decide between two things that are important to you in your life. Non-obvious solutions exist for the intellectually curious.
I think the thing to take away from this is that unless you live in a hole you’re going to get advice from a lot of people. Some of it sounds true, and is completely false. Some of it sounds ridiculous and turns out to be true. But the only thing that you can do is honestly evaluate what’s been said (even if you don’t like it) and try to decide whether it makes sense. Sometimes the answer won’t be obvious right away. But time has a habit of making most of these things more clear.
George Bernard Shaw wrote, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
Don’t be stubborn for the sake of it. But next time you feel like you HAVE to make a decision, or you’re running out of time to do something with your life remember this:
The choices are fake and the truth is all made up.