Have An Idea For A Startup? Read This First
Office in New York, 1930s. Photograph by Bettmann Archive/Corbis/Getty Images
Three things you need to know before you start your own tech business, from the man who has.
Along with Snapchat, the Kardashians and avocado toast, the startup company is emblematic of the millennial era. Over the past decade, startups have proliferated, and the influence they wield on our day-to-day lives is tremendous – most people at one point or another will have tweeted an opinion, been on a Tinder date, or booked themselves into an Airbnb. Many millions have been made, and with all that entrepreneurial success around, it starts to feel like the only thing between you and impossible riches is a great idea.
The reality, however, is quite different, at least according to Mr Rand Fishkin, who has written a realistic guide to launching a startup. The book, titled Lost And Founder: A Painfully Honest Field Guide To The Startup World, takes a warts-and-all approach to the startup world, and Mr Fishkin is well-placed to write it – he is the founder of Moz, a wildly successful SEO software startup company that employs 150 people and has an annual turnover of $47m. That might sound good, but the journey there was full of failures, obstacles and frightening debt collectors. “I won’t share just the tactical tips and tricks; I have to include the ugly, heartbreaking realities, too,” writes Mr Fishkin. “That’s why this book is so transparent about the things founders don’t normally discuss. Money. Depression. Layoffs. Failure.” Mr Fishkin describes the book as “one really long cheat code” to making a startup work and has written it so “you can leapfrog the wasted months, the wasted cash and the heartache too many of us endure. So that if you don’t live in a geography with lots of other startup founders, you can still get the inside scoop.” We’ve distilled the book’s wisdom into the three points below.
BE TRANSPARENT FROM THE START
When starting a business and pitching it to would-be investors, it’s important to sound impressive. It’s even more important, however, to be candid about your shortcomings. “Every founder, every investor, and certainly every employee I’ve ever talked to in the startup world has stories about the secrets that eventually got out, costing trust, harming relationships and often affecting revenue and growth, too,” writes Mr Fishkin. But, he says, being transparent about all aspects of your company, financial or otherwise, is essential from the get go. “Transparency is making the choice to reveal even the most uncomfortable truths with relentless candour. Transparency isn’t the same as honesty. Honesty is saying only things that are true. Many founders and startup teams are honest (in that they don’t directly lie). But transparency requires digging deep to expose what others would normally leave unsaid and refusing to take the easy, quiet road. It’s tackling the conversations that make your stomach turn and your voice get caught in your throat. And like nearly everything in the world of startups, swallowing the bitter pill now is vastly superior to letting the disease of opacity fester.”
UNCOMFORTABLE SELF-AWARENESS IS KEY
“Startups are punishingly hard slogs for everyone involved – founders, employees, spouses and families, and often customers and investors, too,” writes Mr Fishkin. With things being so stressful, it can be tough to step back and critically take apart everything you might be doing wrong. But, he says, the key is to put everything on the table, and ask others to give you honest feedback, however brutal or awkward it may feel. “Question your team. Your investors. Your friends and loved ones. Your customers. Your past managers and coworkers. So often we fail to see ourselves clearly, leaning too far in the direction of pride or false humility,” Mr Fishkin writes, elaborating on the importance of asking a broad range of contacts: “If one person mentions an attribute of yours as a virtue or a failing, consider it. If multiple people mention the same one, you’ve got a more concrete answer. And remember: the more receptive you are, the more honest people will be.”
After the point above, you might assume that you’d need to become emotionally blunted to deal with all the criticism that will inevitably come your way when starting a new venture, but instead, you might do well to think about how retaining a little vulnerability is a good idea. Citing the portrayal of Silicon Valley heavy hitters such as Messrs Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, Mr Fishkin notes that the perception of these seemingly recalcitrant geniuses is not rooted in reality. The portrayals of leaders who put process ahead of people, whether accurate or not, are unconducive to business success, says Mr Fishkin. “In the past, I’ve foolishly hired and worked with people like this, and I’ve seen the distrust that comes from a leader who manages politically and eschews any semblance of humanity,” he writes. “Ironically enough, vulnerability, when exposed openly, has vastly more positive effects on a team. In researching the most successful groups of people in technical and nontechnical professions, on technical and nontechnical tasks, over long periods or just a few hours, both university studies and private company research have found that one attribute predicted performance better than any other: psychological safety.”