Developing a clear perspective about what “starting something” is really all about
The true survival rate of most startups is quite low. We usually only hear about the rarefied few who have actually made it all the way through: companies like Airbnb and Doordash who recently reached the pinnacle milestone of having IPO’d to liquid equity. But these sorts of success stories are few. For most founders, it's a journey of unrelenting challenges for several years, before the company simply stops operating due to acquisition, merger, or bankruptcy. One of the things that most of the successes have in common is that the founders all seem to have a key point in their story when they “had no fucking clue if this would work.” And indeed, it did.
To put it more bluntly, the founder's journey is insufferable, with the rare successes seemingly stumbling their way into a big lucky break. What I’m going to provide here is a framework for both —how to optimize the suffering, and how to stumble into a lucky break. If we as founders could just get really good at these two things, there is nothing in the world we can’t achieve.
Optimize the suffering (i.e. find the silver lining)
If you’re a founder, you probably spend a lot of time feeling bad about yourself. With every scroll, it’s more funding announcements, IPOs, billboards — yes, you’re happy for them but you are also wondering “when is my time going to come?” This is the backdrop of our shared journey.
If you are an early-stage founder, you must face the truth directly: your venture may not work out. The odds of getting an “instant success” are low. Even some of the most successful repeat founders will spend at least a few years stumbling around to find their way. Knowing that the odds of success are low and the timeline is long, you can either grit your teeth through the suffering, or you can choose to look for meaning in the suffering. Let’s start by exploring the latter.
The first step is to establish your center point around hope. It’s about seeing the sun all the way out on the horizon, keeping faith that the effort you are making is going to be worth it, and what you’re building will help people. That’s how I feel about Bizly. By making meetings even a little better, we are creating enormous value for the world. Meetings are the biggest money wasters and time stranglers in the workplace, but they are also the most precious moments of human connection we have to collaborate and build on each other’s knowledge — good meetings are essential to human productivity. We are excited about all we will achieve by making them better. What a worthwhile cause! What wonderful meaning!
But, let's face it. Having a strong vision doesn’t mean you will be able to avoid suffering. It just makes your suffering more worth it.
Making it work is not just about finding a strong mission. To get through the ups and downs of the journey, we also have to get absorbed into nearly every decision we have to make — from the major decisions to the mundane, the quest is to find meaning in each of these moments. The drudgery of startup life, for example, creating reports on a deadline, has new meaning when you think of it as an opportunity to learn something new about your business. The difficult things, like terminating a decent person, can often be a liberating and enriching growth experience for both parties. The key is to see these interactions from a constructive light so you can keep doing the hard things you have to do, while also maintaining a firm resolve to build bridges and help the people around you. Win, win.
This applies to nearly all the hard things we have to do as founders. Investor rejection? Wonderful, let’s learn something. Customer churn? Sure, let’s consider if we should modify our product roadmap. If we can find an opportunity to give back and grow in each interaction, we can rise above adverse circumstances and our animalistic urges, and instantly enrich our lives. Because let’s face it, the founder journey is full of unexpected shit. We can get irritated by it and fight against it, or we can accept it and efficiently find solutions. This difference in outlook makes all the difference.
The truth is, the big happy moments are just as fleeting as the low moments. Keeping an even keel with a focus on meaning is the key to sticking it out for the long haul.
Setting the Stage to Get Lucky
Startups are experiments. So let’s just simply follow the scientific process. The most successful experiments are conducted in a highly regimented environment where the scientist identifies the problems to solve, seizes precise control of the variables, and iterates to eventually find success. The art of “getting lucky” is to simply create the right environment and be present enough to control the variables. That’s the one/two punch!
Creating the environment is table stakes. As founders, we must ensure we have the right elements and tools to achieve the outcomes. Getting the right people on the bus is our most important job. To support that talent, we want to create a culture of excellence, independence, and problem-solving. But it’s not just finding the right talent and instilling values. You also want to create an environment where everyone is following the scientific process alongside you, each committed to doing the really hard things, and working relentlessly to solve the problems they own.
Once you’ve built your greenhouse, now you’ve gotta make it combust. This is where you need the absolute presence of mind so you can control the variables, iterate rapidly, and create the spark. If you are truly engulfed in each critical decision point and action (no matter how trivial), it is only natural that you will be able to control the right variable just when you need it and thus create that illustrious “lucky break”. This plays out in sports arenas every day. It’s the athlete who surrenders themselves to the moment that is most likely to be able to control the variables and make the big play.
This presence of mind is how Stewart created Slack from TinySpeck, Payal created Classpass from Classtivity, Jack created Twitter from Odeo, and the list goes on. To make just the right pivot, these founders were there in the moment, thinking on their feet, immersed in every decision, trying to figure out how they could escape their suffering. They didn’t get their lucky break by forecasting the future. They got their break by creating the right stage, being completely immersed in the decisions of right now, and keeping centered on the meaning in their work.
If you do these two things, I can’t guarantee you’ll escape your suffering. But I do know it’ll make it all worth it.