Life is hard (and startups too)

Startup Lessons I


Startups are really hard work and that means your life becomes your startup. Entrepreneurship is a heads game and you need to have your mind under control. Full commitment and the right attitude are required.

There is in the Internet startup world a perception that everything has to be like walking under sunshine, a bed of roses, a walk in the park: That doing an Internet business is all about being nice to each other, being cool, being friendly. Startup founders see their companies as extended families. Reality is that you need a very specific mindset if you want to go from good to greatness:

Full commitment:

I have seen companies, whose founders still have commitments elsewhere: school, employment, phd program. Startups require your full focus and dedication. Rocket Internet (company) taught me that without complete commitment it is not possible to achieve greatness. You should demand this from everybody in your team.

There is no place for 9 to 5

Similarly, during the first years of your company, it is impossible to have the same working hours as a normal employee at a big corporation. Many startup employees and founders think that they can build great companies and products by going home at 7pm. Reality is that time to market is everything (probably the topic for the next post). Forget about holidays and hobbies or going home early, if you are in this game it is to achieve greatness and this only comes through dedication.

Don’t become a lifestylepreneur

You probably know them, these people only talk the talk but never walk the walk. They hang out mostly at networking events, conferences and parties. If they happen to launch something, they will try to get massive press coverage (often focussing more on the person than on the product - cult of personality). Result: Their startups never become relevant. Rocket Internet (company) showed me that only with a small hardworking ant attitude, remaining humble and in the background, it is possible to truly focus on your company and have what it takes to create something trascendental.

Respect and be respected

I cannot emphasize how many people view entrepreneurship as some type of extended family, where your employees become your friends and you constantly hang out with them. There is nothing wrong with company events and being close to your employees, but always remember who is who. Do not do things which compromise your hierarchy (e.g. partying with your employees and getting drunk in front of them) or their respect (being overemotional in front of your employees). Always remain an authority figure, friendly but distant. You are here to lead them, not to befriend them.

Take nothing for granted

People love to make promises, investors will say that more money will come, customers promise juicy contracts, employees say that they are here for the long run and you think that you will grow old with your company. Reality is: Everyday there is a chance that you can be ousted, that your key employees leave/betray you, that customers never commit or that money never arrives. Do not become paranoid, but it is important to remain skeptical and distrustful.

Sometimes you have to be a jerk

Things go wrong so often, you deal with crap on a daily basis. But many workplaces are so soft nowadays and you are constantly pampered when things are good. Hence, founders and their employees become delusional in their expectations of work and entrepreneurship. As soon as things go south, people cry (seriously, even founders) or simply paralyze. The only way to get rid of all that crap is by being a bit of a jerk and remaining tough at all times.

Take hard decisions

Often startups act on the wrong assumptions and they take decisions based on that. When reality check arrives many entrepreneurs are unwilling to take the required measures. I learnt that the survival of the startup is priority. Often this requires drastic measures: Stop completely marketing expenditure, downsize the company, restructure everything, you name it.

Always remain correct

If you are forced to reduce head count, always do it as correct as possible, don’t hide away or delegate the decision to HR. Be clear, honest and help them find alternatives among your network of connections. It does not change the fact that they have to leave, but as a wise man once said: “You always meet twice in life”.

Recognize when is game over

Some entrepreneurs realize at some point that their company will never succeed. Yet, instead of closing shop, they will keep spending their investors money. I learnt that if it is clear that things will not improve or there is no chance to become clear leader, it is better to let it be and stop waisting time and investors’ money. All this should show you that startups are hard, really hard. Not only because all the uncertainty and difficulty associated with creating something new, but also because it requires the right attitude and commitment. A lot of very talented people forget this and fail.

Remember: Startups are hard… so man up!