5 Years of Startups: What I Wish People Had Told Me
Backstory: I’ve been doing startups for the past 5 years. I’ve been in 4 startups, 2 as an employee and 2 I’ve founded. The 2 I’ve founded went through Y Combinator S12 and S14 batch.
1. Don’t do it for the money unless you’re shooting for billions
I don’t think I’ve ever decided to do a startup just for the money but I’d be lying through my teeth if I told you that money wasn’t a factor. I think because in the states it’s a bit of a taboo to openly ever admit that you’re doing something just for the money that many people lie to themselves about their actual inner ambitions as people may label you as a sellout or someone who has shallow ambitions. On the contrary though, I think it’s perfectly alright to do something just for money as long as you can be honest with yourself.
However, if you’re doing a startup just for the money, the unfortunate truth is that startups are a terrible way to make money. There are plenty of easier ways to make a million dollars than going through the hardships of founding a startup that will statistically likely fail.
Alternative routes such as working a decent paying job and investing it for 20 years will guarantee millions of dollars with higher certainty than 20 years of startups. During those 20 years, you’ll probably end up working a lot less and being more mentally comfortable too. If that doesn’t sound great to you and you’re unwavering in your love for startups and technology, you can always just join an early stage startup or even a mid stage rocket ship of a company and make millions of dollars that way.
The only contradiction is if you’re aiming to make billions of dollars then startups are actually a great path to billions, if not one of the only paths to a billion dollars. But if this is your goal, be honest with yourself and be sure that that’s what you really, really want. Is your pursuit really money? Do you really want to become a billionaire? What would you even do with all of that money?
Again, I don’t think money is a shallow pursuit by any means. I just don’t think it’s a good anchor for motivation while doing a startup because reality doesn’t often times line up with expectation.
Once you find yourself in the deepest darkest hole of your startup and begin doing the mental calculations in your head on whether or not you should quit, you’ll think about how much money you’ve lost, the opportunity cost, how much time and wasted energy, and if money was your only anchor, you’ll probably quit.
2. It’s going to be a lot harder than you think
People always say it’s hard but I never quite personally believed it. When someone tells you something is hard, if you’re the type of person that likes challenges, you’ll likely tell yourself, “Pssh, I’ve been through a lot. It can’t be that bad”.
But it really is likely the hardest thing you’ll ever attempt in your life.
For one, it’s a huge toll on the psyche. It’s like building up your morale and courage and then getting rejected over and over and over again.
As Peter Thiel points out, good startup ideas often look like really bad ideas. If it was a good idea, everyone would have been scrambling to do it. It’s only a good idea in your eyes because you probably have market expertise or a vision that many other people don’t have. For those that are uninformed, you just look crazy to them.
And that’s the problem. You’re going to look crazy. Not only to investors but to colleagues, to acquaintances and new people you meet, and most importantly to your friends and family. A lot of them won’t understand what you’re doing. Some might even think it’s stupid and it’ll be one of the most discouraging things you’ll face.
Can you continue working on your startup when the closest people to you all think you’re wasting your life on something that won’t go anywhere? Can you continue working on your startup when your significant other suggests you should go back working a “regular job” so you guys can have a more stable life?
Startups can and will eat away at your life if you’re not careful. It starts with just one late night, then two, then three then you’re working late night on weekends, now you’re working on vacations, then before you know it you haven’t taken a vacation in two years. It doesn’t always have to be like this but without careful introspection you will lose close friends, you will become more distant with your family. It will creep on you and if you let it, you’ll probably be faced with some of the most impossible choices you’ve ever had to make in your life.
3. It’s going to be a lot more rewarding than you think
On the positive side, as difficult as I’ve found startups to be, not many people have told me how positive and rewarding the experience will be either.
I believe that entrepreneurs are a particular type of people. Not in the sense that one has an engineering background and one with a marketing background, but I think there are very specific traits bring us together.
Entrepreneurs are curious and usually asks a lot questions. They’re akin to that annoying kid that always raises their hand in school. They’re also driven to where they’re always trying to find ways to improve and optimize inefficient systems. They are the type of person that says, “if I had 2 rubber bands a pen, I could probably build a better XYZ than that hunk of junk”.
They’re obsessed to the point where the only things that occupies their minds sometimes is how to solve a particular problem. Sometimes it’s difficult to get in contact with them or communicate with them because they’re off in their own worlds.
They’re rule breakers, ever teetering on the edge of what is legally and morally right. Sometimes it’s scary to be associated with them because you don’t know if you’ll get in trouble as well.
I don’t think entrepreneurs make the best friends. They often times can appear bizarre, eccentric, distant, uncaring, overly opinionated. I feel like if you were entrepreneurial in a sea of people who weren’t, you would easily feel frustrated and crazy.
And I think that’s exactly why if you felt like you had the calling to DO something; to create something and you took the leap of faith despite whatever logic telling you not to, you might find yourself in a place amongst people who also share grandiose delusions as you and the feeling that you belong and why the journey, despite how difficult it may be, might end up being worth it for the experience alone.
That was Y Combinator for me. Throughout school, I’ve always felt frustrated at “the man” for holding me down and with what I felt were to be set paths that I didn’t particularly agree with. When I made the leap into this bizarre world of startups and entrepreneurship, you slowly begin to realize that no one really knows what they’re doing either, we’re all a little bit scared, and on the inside, all might be a bit a little crazy as well. For me, this has been the amazing experience of feeling like I’m not alone.
- Vu Tran (Founder @SlideMail)