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The Startup Attitude

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You become amazing by studying what attitude winners have. Learn the attitude, the rest is muscle memory and coordination.

I've been a startup junkie for about ten years now. I've read dozens of books and hung out with as many successful startup founders as possible. I've attempted half a dozen startups -- really cool projects which I've described before.

I have swam in startups.

I'm that way: I pick a topic and immerse myself totally in it. I live, eat, breathe, and sleep it.

I'm not an expert. In fact, over the years I've grown a profound disdain for book authors and experts alike. There's something about saying that you know something that inevitably makes you look stupid sooner or later.

But now that I'm starting to get just a tiny bit of traction, and I've gotten used to looking stupid so much that it doesn't bother me anymore, I'd like to tell you the things that were wrong with my attitude that took so long to fix.

  • the sprint mentality - Who knew that being effective was a bad habit? Yet the very attributes that I praise so highly in the commercial world can be counterproductive in the startup world. In the commercial world, you have goals and deadlines. Teams make money by delivering on goals ahead of deadlines and under budget. The focus is on sprinting and efficiency.

    In the startup world, it's not like that at all. You don't really know what the problem is, and there's never a moment when you cross a deadline. So when I worked on my startup projects I used to work on them like commercial projects, completing sprints and taking a day or two off between them. I think I could have spent that time much better just taking an hour a day absorbed in a problem and putting the pieces together. I focused too much on efficiency, which is the number one goal of the corporate world. Solve the market problem -- make something people want and that they can easily get from you -- and the hell with efficiency. If it takes you ten years to figure out one thing that a million people want and and give you a dollar for, you've done it right. Ten years is a freaking lot of playing with people and experimentation, yet finding things that work is the only real value in the startup community.

  • confusing startups with highlander - There can be only one! At least that's the way I felt for a long time. I picked a problem and immersed myself in it. Usually it involved doing neat technical things and working very hard. I had confused learning stuff with running a startup. When you learn stuff you focus in and immerse. When you run a startup you're much more easy-going, strategic, and nimble. You can't be easy-going, nimble, and strategic if you are up to your elbows in code. Code is necessary, but it can be a very small part of a hugely successful startup. Instead of thinking there must just be one thing that I have to kill myself doing at this low level and intricate detail, it's probably better to think of there being a trillion combinations of things I could be doing, and the main goal has to be managing and optimizing among all those choices. When you get traction, sure, then you'll need to hump it. But the initial phase? Before you're swimming in customers? Not really. Instead of trying to pick the perfect plan and idea and fight for it, have a dozen ideas and find a way to let them fight over you. Maybe you pick 1 or 2 and play some more. Maybe you pick none of them and try something else. There are no rules except the rules you make for yourself. It's a startup, not Highlander.
  • adding in a bunch of stuff that didn't need to be there - I have read some truly awesome books about startups out there, and I have read some wonderful essays and blog entries. I sincerely believe that there are dozens, if not hundreds of people out there who are honestly and sincerely trying to help folks found their own startups. We live in a time like no other in history.

    Having said that, though, there is also a lot of conflicting advice. And there's a lot of "noise". There is a huge amount of selection bias out there. This is going to sound crazy, I know, but just because you formed a team in your 20s and made a billion dollars doesn't mean that you have anything useful to tell me. There is quite a bit of luck at work in startups, and many times whatever worked for one person is not what is going to work for me. They don't mean harm, it's just that they have created their own narrative for why things went as well as it did for them, and much of this narrative can be highly creative in its view of reality. I had to reach the point where I had read so much that it all started to just wash over me before I was ready to stop reading startup books. Did I learn that much from them? Hard to say. I think I probably learned as much about startups from reading those books as you could learn about dancing by watching a Fred Astaire movie. I got the gist of it, and I know what it looks like when it's done right, but a lot of this stuff has to be done to be understood.

  • confusing learning the attitude with small talk - This was a very painful lesson. A few years after I started my startup journey, I started reading startup blogs and news sites, most notably Hacker News. I figured at the time that by simply hanging out with startup folks some of it might "rub off" on me.

    What I found was that over the internet it is very difficult to distinguish somebody who is just idly chatting with somebody who is trying to provide you critical advice. I spent a lot of time talking politics and economics with other hackers, not because I am a partisan or love arguing but because I love complex systems and I think they have an intimate part in any startup. I still feel that way, but those conversations inevitably spread into just meaningless bantering. If you ask me, too many people listen to talk radio and watch cable TV and have lost the ability to talk humbly and honestly to each other about their observations. There is a lot of posturing. Whatever. But I kept trying to talk about general principles and patterns that I could apply to startups, and ended up talking about political party X and their plans for Y. I would really like a version of Hacker News for grown-ups, but I doubt that is coming any time soon. A pimply-faced teenager and the CEO of a multinational all look the same to a web server, so I was playing a losing game that just got worse as the sites I visited got more popular. I had to disengage from much of this, and it was a painful and time-consuming lesson to learn.

    I imagine you can do the same thing in person. Even if you're meeting people and schmoozing, are you spending a lot of time talking around startups? You can kill a hell of a lot of time talking about all sorts of peripheral things to do with startups. Or you can go run your own startup. The choice is yours.

  • the "i'm a hammer" problem - They say create a startup in an area you know about, and I believe this to be true, but I also believe this advice to be incomplete. There is a very strong tendency to confuse detailed work with valuable work. Yes, a heat surgeon is probably the best person to get involved with startups involving heart surgery, but the startup itself may simply be a new kind of paperclip that holds medical records together. They don't say "do what you know" because your startup is going to be using all the skills you have learned in this area. They say "do what you know" because you can act as a proxy customer enough and that you are integrated into the community enough that you can make something people want that's scalable. And making something people want that's scalable is all you have to do.
  • wanting to hit home runs - I like thinking about big problems. Heck, I like solving big problems too. I've coded many large-scale projects that do cool stuff for millions of people. It's awesome to do something like that. Who wants to make a better widget when you create an entirely new market?

    I haven't given up on the home-runs -- I'm still immensely interested in minimalist interfaces and making computers more responsive and useful to people instead of distracting and addictive, but there are only a few Babe Ruths in the world. Want to swing for the fences? Awesome! It's the only way to do it. But at the same time, you had better be a good grounder batter and a good bunter. Playing baseball is about teamwork, about fitting into a larger whole, not about being a hot-dog and flaming out. There is a synergy with the larger world involved with startups, even little startups ran from the woods of rural Virginia. Don't forget that.

  • patience - Everybody says that it takes time to have a successful startup, but man, I really underestimated just how much time was involved. Part of that, I think, was reading business "porn": those stories told about Facebook and Hot-or-Not and such that make startups out to be this huge roller-coaster ride. Also places like Y Combinator add to this, even if they know better. A team starts from nothing, goes to Y Combinator, then suddenly its the darling of the tech community. Things are slamming. No matter how much I read that it takes time, it still seemed from reading that after a few months or a year or so you just knew if it was working or not.

    But that was egregiously in error. In fact, for every media darling, I'm betting there are dozens more startups, perhaps hundreds more, that simply dug in and slugged it out in a marketplace. It's not sexy or glamorous, but its reality.

    I used to call this "carrying the team over the finish wire", by which I meant I just reached down inside me and decided to do whatever it took to make it to where I was going. I owned every obstacle and didn't shy away from danger, failure, or suckiness. That's not saying I'm a saint, or even somebody to look up to, just that you have to just suck it all in and keep it all inside. The market is there and you won't change that, but the rest of your reality, the rest of your world, you have to drag to where you are going. It's not going to be very responsive on its own. The world profoundly does not care about you or your startup. It will not help, and in many cases it will inadvertently try to keep you from succeeding. So ingest that information and succeed anyway.

  • being creative can suck - I'm a creative person. I like thinking of how things might be. I find that it keeps me motivated. But at the same time, its very easy to use your creativity so much to motivate you that you have a difficult time taking the next small logical step you need to take. Today you have a bunch of mundane and boring things to do. You could do these things -- which you don't want to -- or you can think of what it would be like to scale a MySql database to a million hits per day. One of these things is fun, one is not. You have to use your creativity to drive you, but you also have to be very careful you don't let it distract you into areas that you just aren't ready for yet. Yes, I could imagine all sorts of scenarios where I might need to know all kinds of technical things and these could be critically important. And yes, one day my startup will lead me to have a successful life and do all kinds of cool things like own a boat that I can land my personal jet helicopter on, but none of these things are important at all right now. Making it worse is that many vendors -- especially tools and technology vendors -- spend a lot of time making you imagine situations where you might need their tools and technology. This type of thinking is pandemic in the technology community. Just to pick on Microsoft, do you need to make a Silverlight app that runs in the cloud? Or do you want to make something people want? They're not the same thing, and if you listen to these guys you're going to spend a hell of a lot of time learning little bits and bytes of stuff that doesn't do anything except increase the amount of technical trivia in your head and let somebody else have a boat he can land a helicopter on. Very tough lesson to learn: staying motivated and having a dream while at the same time prioritizing on immediate tasks.

I'm notorious for being a slow learner -- some times I have to try things every way that won't work before I finally figure out the ways that do.

Don't make my mistakes.


Intersting points, but throwing less flowers to yourself would make it a great one.

Thanks for the comment.

Not really interested in making a great essay, although it's always nice to do so. I did the best job I could.

Not sure what you mean by throwing flowers to myself. I just wrote it as I feel it.

Thanks for the feedback though. I'll keep in mind getting a good editor if I ever decide to write for other people besides myself. I'm glad you thought it had potential.

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This page contains a single entry by DanielBMarkham published on November 17, 2010 9:38 AM.

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Information you might find handy
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