As founders we’re generally told the best way to build a business is to solve a problem in the world. Find a problem, create a solution and someone will pay you money for it.
Great, I think we can all agree with that.
Issues arise when you are advised to solve “your” problem, which I have noticed happens quite often. And on the surface it makes sense – the easiest problems to find in the world are the one’s right in front of your face. So we are told to look at our life and determine what needs to be fixed. Next step, we go out and build our solution so our lives can be made better. Then we think, “if I have this problem, then others must have it too!” We dream about getting lucky, the moment others figure out they have this problem as well, and think we just might hit the home run and cash in on our new idea.
I started thinking about this the other day when I read or heard on video someone mentioning the fact that this is precisely why we have so many copycat startups around Silicon Valley.
Think about it (yes I am generalizing): pretty much everyone in the valley is of the same demographic and has mostly the same problems in their life. It’s hard to argue we are in a relatively small bubble and can only see our own groups unique problems. Simply put, we all have the same problems in our small little startup world. That ‘s why we have so many founders trying to make an incrementally better photo sharing app, food ordering app (or input-any-cliche-mobile-app-example here). We are too narrowly focused on what’s in our palms each day we don’t lift our heads towards the rest of the world and see what they are dealing with. We all walk around with smartphones in our pockets and cannot stop thinking about how to make our lives 10% better with this new app, or that new website. This is how we get 10 Pinterest’s and 50 Instagram-wannabes.
That’s all fine and dandy for the 1% in our bubble but what about the 99%? What about the person that doesn’t have a smartphone or doesn’t want to think about being plugged in it 24/7/365? The problem is we don’t know what all the problems are out there in the world because we aren’t really thinking about the rest of the world.
So how do we get away from all the copy cats and towards real world changing ideas?
We need to start solving problems, just not “our” problems. We need to start talking to other people outside our network and our little bubble, maybe they aren’t as fortunate as us and still have challenges we aren’t aware of but could help solve. We need to shut up and listen to what they are struggling with and then start thinking about how to bring a solution to them.
Real customer development happens when you have many conversations – hundreds or even thousands – and you find random people are all having the same problems but lack a viable solution. That’s when you know you are onto something – not when you have a thought in the shower about this thing in your life that really needs to be fixed.
Uniqueness will come when you look outside of yourself and your little bubble and discover issues people not like you are dealing with. If you have the problem as well, even better!
So If you really want to change the world, solve a problem. Just don’t solve your problem because it’s probably not something the 99% aren’t even thinking about.
“It took us more than 16 years to get to one million paid households but just 18 months to double it.”
I read an article today that talked about how well Angie’s List did last quarter, posting impressive growth around users and revenues. If you are not familiar, Angie’s List is a new age Yellow pages, a marketplace for service oriented local businesses.
One sentence caught my attention: “It took us more than 16 years to get to one million paid households but just 18 months to double it.”
How’s that for patience? I had no idea Angie’s List was even 16 years old. More impressive, I haven’t heard of many companies where it took so long to reach a milestone like that. Both are impressive feats of patience, persistence and obviously hard work.
But what’s fascinating is how quickly they reached 2 million paid accounts – just 18 months.
18 months vs 16 years. Wow.
I’d be curious to know what they did to increase the paid user base so quickly. Of course, a certain amount users will come from viral, word of mouth actions of existing users. But, in the local space it can be more difficult to achieve viral growth. It would be great to hear what has worked for them.
Never forget, the amount of work it might take to get to your first big milestone isn’t necessarily the amount required to reach the next milestone. Just test a lot and keep doing what’s working and stop doing what isn’t. Things do get easier and the system can start working for you once you reach a certain critical mass.
I have never really been a huge fan of Angie’s List, but I certainly have more respect for them now.
Life moves pretty fast….. sometimes it’s best to sit back and reflect on your priorities.
The unintended consequence of a startup can be acceleration of everything around you. It happens so fast, in fact, you end up losing perspective on more important aspects of life. It’s easy to get out of bed each day, focus on what’s in front of you, go to bed only to get back up the next day to do it all again. If you are not careful you will find yourself sprinting and spinning in place, making no forward progress at all.
Problems arise when you lose perspective, focusing only on what’s in front of you, becoming all too consumed on accomplishing your immediate goals and not what lies on your life’s horizon. Soon enough you will reach your “destination” without taking certain aspects of life into consideration – like family, health and the afterlife – leaving you empty and unfulfilled at the end of your journey.
Here are 5 areas I am currently reflecting on to help gain a perspective on life with hopes to figure out a way to better align with what I am doing right now. (Pardon the existential tone, just one of those days I guess…)
Do I actually enjoy how I spend my days?
Though it’s quite elementary it might help to evaluate if you are actually enjoying where you go and how you spend each day once you get out of bed and leave your house. Honestly take into account the fun factor, or lack thereof. Do you feel like a kid? Or a boring adult? Do the hours pass with ease and are you fulfilled once the day is over? Yes, we have to make a wage, earn a paycheck and support our family but we don’t have to dislike it. We should be enjoying each passing day and the process within.
I quit my full time job a while ago because I didn’t enjoy working for someone else and simply earning dollars for the hours I worked. I decided to start a company – knowing it was going to be tough – because I value exploration and journey more than maintaining a status quo. I more value creation than maintenance.
But even now as a free entrepreneur I am not exactly living the charmed life and if I am really honest with myself I remain unfulfilled. The eyes burn and the legs strain as I make the climb. I am still searching for the right environment, right cause and right team to help me execute on a worthy mission. Most important to me is reaching a time in my life where I am able to say “if this is the last day of my life I am extremely excited and happy to do exactly what I plan to do today.”
We’ll get there.
What do I want my grandchildren to say about me?
Gazing towards the horizon, I am pondering how my family and friends will think of me when I am gone. I hope I am following through and planting the right seeds. How about you? How will your friends and family describe you to their friends and others? What will they talk about and what type of person will they describe? Will they be proud to be your grandchild? How did you treat them and what types of memories do you want to leave with them?
I am not even married so I am not even sure why I am thinking about my grandchildren. Maybe it’s better to understand this concept in terms of legacy. I want to leave a positive legacy for my family to be proud of. It’s safe to say I haven’t gotten very far on this one but it is never too early to ponder what it should involve. I want to be known as someone who never gave up, regardless of how difficult things became. I want to be known as someone who treated everyone fair and well, regardless of who they were or their circumstances. I also want to influence change in the world and encourage others to do the same.
I want to be proud of the person my grandchildren hopefully talk about.
If I die today, what will I say to my creator about how I lived my life?
Heavy stuff to think about but just imagine this for a minute: you die, you go onto to the afterlife and you approach someone (something) who is there to take account of your life.
Yep. Each. And. Every. Minute. Of. Your. Life.
They look at you and proceed to ask you questions about it. Why did you say that word to that person? Why didn’t you offer a hand to that helpless woman? I gave you millions of dollars to help others, why did you spend it all on your self?
Now imagine them showing you how they hoped you had lived your life. All the possibilities and potentials of your life start flooding right in front of you, but you cannot speak. Your face goes white with regret as you realize you squandered all your strengths and talents, not using them as they could have been used to help your fellow man.
I know… crazy stuff.
Who, if anyone in my life, can I share my deepest and darkest fears with?
Do you have a confidant? Is there someone you can talk to who will understand and hold no judgement, no matter what you tell them? I have noticed thoughts, feelings, and emotions building up within me at the same time I can’t find an outlet in sight. It can be frustrating and claustrophobic to identify struggles and challenges within us but lack any outlet or confidant.
Our biggest fears are the only thing holding us back from reaching our greatest potential. What if you were able to talk them out and allow someone to help you work through them sans any judgment or embarrassment?
I know I am starting to look for people and ways to come to grips with the fears I have in my life. In fact, writing has become one of them.
If Superman were to look at the world today, what wrongs would he want to make right?
There’s way too much uncertainty and unrest in the world today. I have to assume even Superman would be overwhelmed with all there is to fix in the world. But it seems to me an interesting exercise to ponder what Superman would want to fix if he/she were actually real.
Billions of people around the world still don’t have clean drinking water and live on $1 a day. There are millions of people in the U.S. who are searching for employment opportunities, maybe Superman could think of ways to solve both third world and first world employment problems. In fact, right down the street in Silicon Valley there are people starving and homeless, yet young startup founders are asking investors to give them millions of dollars so they can build yet another way to share photos and send a short message to someone else – all requiring people own the latest expensive smartphones.
How about terrorism? How could he create something to curb the urge and the need for people to inflict pain and suffering on others? And what about the financial challenges every country seems to be under now? Don’t you think he could get creative enough to help out? I bet there’s a lot more for Superman to fix, right?
Your unique reflections on the above will indeed bring out the entrepreneur in you. I guarantee it.
I don’t know about you but a recent trend has me frustrated. At a time the world is getting more “social” it is seems to be getting less nice. In fact, it is getting down right rude and it’s starting to get to me big time.
Take the 140 character tweet. When read literally and out loud you will realize comes out like someone is shouting at the top of their lungs directly at you, in short bursts of random words lacking any context or relevance. Now multiply that by millions of people and we have become a society simply trying to shout the loudest at each other’s faces.
More recently, observing activity on social media platforms Facebook and Twitter during tragedies such as the Boston Marathon Bombing can be a crash course in sociology. Although the actions of the accused were absolutely terrible, what was tweeted and typed into those message boxes by millions of people and sent out to the worldwide public was arguably just as bad. Realizing how crude the human race has become to each other has me perplexed. Racism, hatred, blaming innocent people, spreading images of innocent people and publicly accusing them of an international war crime. It’s all ridiculous.
I am not talking about what people were saying about the eventual caught suspects. I am talking about tweets aimed at others on the periphery or even random twitter users sending tweets about what happened. What frightens me the most is how quickly we are becoming desensitized to how absurd and rude we are becoming.
I do see the value in social technologies and believe there are many ways and means for people to use them in socially positive manners. The difference is when mob mentality takes over and people feel as if their single tweet – no matter the content – doesn’t really matter in the large social universe.
Yet it does.
There’s a certain snowball effect most people seem oblivious to when they hastily type 140 characters and absentmindedly push send. When other users retweet their factually inaccurate or hate filled tweets to thousands of others, and then they retweet to thousands of others, things get out of hand very quickly. This is how hatred, fear and mistreatment of others runs ramped on the social web.
I couldn’t imagine this stuff happening 20 years ago when we would have had to vocally say it out loud in pubic. We have laws and social norms for that kind of stuff.
All this because we are able to comfortably tweet or share something from the confines of our phone or PC keyboard. And then not having to be held accountable for it.
I have also noticed the growing trend of people simply not returning (sent to a real person) emails, be it a business contact or a even a potential new employer. I actually read a few days ago “the non-returned email is the new no”.
To me, this is inexcusable and rude. It’s as if you asked someone a question to their face and they simply did nothing, or even walked away.
How would you feel then?
I literally had a recruiter recently reschedule a phone call with me 3 different times, and on the 4th time she simply didn’t call at the time we had eventually decided on. She then emailed her “apology” a week later probably thinking nothing out of the ordinary. I now have a “new level of respect” for the Seattle based, publicly traded technology company – and it’s not positive.
Yes, I understand we all are drowning in a sea of emails. I get it. But I have – and will continue – to make it a high priority to get back to people when they email me. It’s simply common courtesy and I have learned it actually speaks volumes about a person’s morals and ethics.
Think not? I’ll give you a story.
Early on in my experience as CEO I had the opportunity to be introduced to Brad Feld, one of the world’s highest regarded VC’s. I read somewhere about his respectfulness and how he is quick to respond to emails, even if to just say no. Well, after the email intro from the mutual contact I responded with a short, quick pitch about Seconds.
Remember Brad is in high demand, on the board of many different companies and very well known. He could have simply let it slip through the cracks and “oops, forgot” about that random person.
Literally 5 minutes later I receive an response from Brad stating unfortunately Seconds was not within their portfolio focus and was passing on the opportunity. This had to take a total of 30 secs – 1 minute for him to respond. I thanked him and said I appreciated the timely response.
I now hold Brad in very high regard (as do thousands of others apparently for obvious reasons) and will tell anyone who will listen how solid of person he is. And to think I don’t even know him personally?
You know what I think about all the others who don’t get back to me or responded WAY late? Nope, I don’t forget. They lost a notch of respect in my book and I will always think about how they treated me in that specific instance.
A courteous and timely response goes a long way with people, even when its to simply say “no”. A simple refrain or just thinking twice about retweeting or liking something that might be hurtful to another person is huge when you think about how many of your followers might quickly retweet your comment as well.
The snowball (virality) effect of social media is a double edge sword, make sure you are using the proper edge to carefully treat people the morally and ethically right* way.
*what’s morally and ethically “right” you say? The way in which you would want others to do unto you probably is the way you should do unto others.
Phew, there I said it.
Even though Silicon Valley and the startup culture in general celebrates failure and preaches how founders shouldn’t hide behind their mistakes, it’s not an easy thing to admit or talk about. Naturally, we tend to put our best face on in public and act like all is well even when it’s not. And when it becomes too overwhelmingly difficult to face publicly, most run and hide and miss the opportunity to help others by addressing challenges openly and honestly.
Well, not me. I believe in telling the truth and having an authentic discussion around the not so celebrated aspects of entrepreneurship.
Taking more than enough time to think about what I just experienced and how I should respond to it, I feel it’s time to talk openly about it hoping maybe I can help someone else be more open with their failures when their time comes. Failure is hard to cope with no matter how strong you think you are and by opening up and examining the lessons that accompany failure we can all walk away better, not bitter.
“Just dust yourself off and try again.”
That is what you hear from others when you fail at something, like they know exactly what you are going through and how you feel. ”Yea, sure… thanks man, but you have no idea.” That is my internal response. If only life was that easy.
There’s no way another person understands the dynamics of a founder’s mental processes during the moment they realize it ain’t working. I sure as hell hate to hear someone relate to my experience to something as simple as a kid tripping over a crack on the sidewalk during dodgeball at recess. So much emotion, time, money and energy is wrapped into the entrepreneurial journey, especially when it turns out not as one expected or wanted.
Yet, during my time of reflection I have been able to separate the wheat from the chaff, come to understand some things are under our control and many things simply aren’t. This is my attempt to dissect and relate back to the world some of the things I could have done differently.
The experiment failed. Seconds, my mobile payments startup here in Seattle failed to attain a level of usage and customers to become sustainable. What’s more, we failed to secure outside investment to capitalize our company for the near/mid term in order to grow into a sustainable company. We simply came to the end of the runway (cash) and have now decided to navigate the next direction of the team and product.
To say I earned all the gray hairs I now have in the last 15 months would be an understatement. I dealt with a cofounder and CTO of the company leaving 6 months in because he realized it was going to be tougher than he thought it would be, leaving me with a tech startup and no technical leader to write any code.
This sucked. Since I had to spend most of my energy in finding the right replacement for this critical puzzle piece during the middle of 2012, we failed to gain any momentum in on-boarding more customers and making necessary product improvements.
I should be more proud in retrospect, I was able to find a new CTO and thus pulled the plane out of a downward spiral and at least leveled it off into a smoother glide. But as a result of the slow glide we found ourselves in a foggy, hazy and scary place. In nowhere land, we became a not-dead-but-not-really-living company.
A zombie startup, as they are now calling them.
I, as the CEO, take full responsibility for the outcome of Seconds. Although not the person responsible for code and development, I was the person responsible for leading the team, driving the customer base and growing the operation. I failed to uphold my end of the bargain and in the end the company’s fate went down with it.
Given the fact we failed at growing Seconds into a successful mobile payments company, it’s important to remove the layers and find lessons applicable to my life and future companies I will inevitably start or join. Steve Blank says failed founders are actually “experienced founders”. I agree to an extent. More important is the ability to evaluate your failure, pick it apart and glean nuggets of wisdom to apply to your life. That, or all is a waste.
Below are a few things I now realize in hindsight led to the demise of our experiment.
a) jumped to quick – I was recruited by one of my co-founders to join as the CEO in fall 2011. I jumped too quickly into the company and within 2 weeks of meeting the team I was full time and ready to take on the world with people I had never met before. I didn’t know their ups and downs. Nor their gifts or their faults. In retrospect, I am not sure this was the best decision and probably would have benefited from a longer deliberation and research of the team I was joining as well as the market we were attacking.
b) didn’t obsessively focus on customers – We didn’t focus enough time and energy outside the office talking to non-customers, potential customers and existing customers about their specific needs and how our product can help them. Even more basic, although it’s easy to preach about lean startup methods and customer development principles, it’s quite another to get your ass out of the office and into uncomfortable conversations with people who will inevitably knock down your idea and hypothesis. We didn’t validate the problem/solution clear enough. Yet that is the only way to go from an erroneous hypothesis to a more valuable one; one which can then use to grow into a sustainable business model.
c) Underestimated fundraising - ha, I actually thought it would be easy to raise money. Boy did I get that one wrong. Investors are very strange creatures and at the end of the day they really can’t tell you why they invested in one company and passed on another. It’s a tough nut to crack – especially for a first timer lacking glorified credentials like Stanford or Ivy League degrees or a past (successful) startup experience.
I figured we would lean on a quick seed round of funding for the first year or so and go from there. I figured it would buy us some time to dial in the revenue model. That wasn’t good enough. Founders must figure out how to build a sustainable operation from day one (or until investment does finally hit the account) or they risk losing it all. (read: once you perfect your business model on a spreadsheet you actually have to execute on it and bring in a critical mass of ongoing revenue or the game is over before it starts. See b above.)
The “throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks” method does not work for early-stage, cash-strapped startups. Got it?
d) didn’t recruit talent – I did not place enough value on recruiting and cultivating talent within our team and personal network. I naively thought discovering dev talent was for the job of a CTO/Lead Developer and I should not really put in the time and effort to find these people. My bad. Whether you are technical or not, it’s the CEO’s responsibility to reach across the isle and get to know as many talented and gifted engineers as he can. Yes, a conversation for me is a lot smoother /easier with a non-technical person, but in the long run a network full of strong relationships with both technical and non-technical people will always be better than one or the other.
Easier said then done but team is most important. You should never stop cultivating relationships and building your dream team, even if it’s just in your head at the moment.
e) emptied the tank – I allowed the tank to hit empty. Empty of money. Empty of belief. Empty of customers. Empty of options. Empty of vision. Empty of energy to keep going. Empty of emotional strength and connection. The determinist would say it ran its course and as the world turns… but in the end we just didn’t execute where we needed to so that we could keep (all) the tanks away from the fatalistic empty point.
There should always be another lever you can pull and pivot you can make to keep it going but… I let myself go first and once the leader’s tank is empty not much else can be done.
More lessons are in there for sure… a lot more. But I cannot find the right words or analogies to make sense in my mind, let alone in this post so these five will do for now. I am sure over the course of the next months/years I will hit upon another revelation and compose a nice piece for all to learn from.
Needless to say I learned a lot in the last year and a half.
Would I do anything differently starting over? Of course I would. If it were Sep 2011 all over again I can’t say I would. It’s impossible. Looking back, these lessons could only have taught me something by living them firsthand. I am grateful of my experience and appreciate what it has taught me.
Failed entrepreneur = experienced entrepreneur.
Here’s where it gets tough. Recent coverage has detailed the fate of a few people in the startup community who – by all means looked great from the outside – but on the inside were tearing themselves apart due to massive stress they were facing in their personal/professional lives. In the end they decided to take their own life rather than deal with their challenges. I cannot (and will not) attempt to defend or attack their decisions, but I can only say I now understand.
I was both terrified and haunted when reading through and trying to understand what had happened.
I, too, have thought about it. I have stood and thought about things I never imagined I would need to think about. Not about ending it all, but about my place in the world and the value I bring to it. I figure someone who follows through with an act such as ending one’s own life must feel as if there’s really not much to live for anymore – or else they wouldn’t have made the fatal decision.
The emotion of a failed startup is rooted in rejection. None of us want to be rejected and we just want to be proud of what we have accomplished. As the plane enters the downward spiral and you as the founder cannot gain control, things (shit) starts to hit the fan.
The scariest problem is how quickly it can turn into a downward spiral.
The fact that these people were driven to and ultimately succumbed to suicide are the true failings of entrepreneurship, the tech community and society in general. If founders feel they truly have no more value to add simply because they didn’t live up to outside expectations and lost investor’s money, we are in big trouble.
And if it has anything to do with media coverage and the resulting negative shitstorm of outside comments we now face when our failure is publicly written about, we are in very big trouble.
Founding a company is one of the most emotional activities people will experience in their lives. Most companies are extensions of their founders, everything from the code created to the core founding principles of the organization. A founder’s greatest dream is to take an original thought and see it spread around the world, influencing millions if not billions. When that doesn’t happen – your vision or idea doesn’t take off and start spreading around the world – you stubbornly start to question yourself and your value.
You also start to slide down a slippery psychological slope that might not have a (positive) end. Once the slide starts, seemingly mundane daily occurrences start to pile up. Problems arise in a founder’s mind when rejection becomes more than just a no. To a rejected founder, an unreturned email from a potential partner becomes more than forgetfulness. A no from a potential investor becomes a fatal rejection, such as a shove off a large cliff meant to kill an opponent. A customer discontinuing their service is akin to a tribe shunning you from their tight knit society.
To an outside individual, these small insignificant acts are commonplace and normal during a business day. But to a founder who is teetering on obscurity and rejection – they can indeed be the straw that breaks the camels back.
By all accounts I am homeless – I find myself sleeping on family/friends couches and spare rooms so I don’t have to deal with rent during this chunk of time. I have been living on a few dollars per day and being really creative on staying alive. I have no car or personal transportation, casualty of my decision to be an entrepreneur. I have strained my family life to a place it has not been before. I also have strained my financial position to a place it has never been before.
Truth be told, it’s a tough time right now.
But I’ll be alright. As hard as it has been the last 6 months, I made the decision I was going to live through it. I have committed to live through the toughest of times so whenever I do get back to normal I will be stronger and more humbled than before. I decided that if I choose to end it now – to quit on life – they will have won. All those people who say it’s impossible, snickering cowardly behind a twitter account or tolling comments on blog posts and news articles will have triumphed over us. That would be the tragedy.
Life is worth more than the ignorant comments from cowardly people.
I remain committed to becoming a successful entrepreneurial story no matter how long it takes, even if it means I need to join another company in the near term. Why? Because the world needs more examples of people overcoming hardships. Also because we don’t need more people driven to suicide purely because they feared what TechCrunch, PandoDaily, The Verge and Business Insider (and the idiotic cowardly commentors) were going to say once it was known they failed.
We’re better than that.
Fail. Learn. Live.
This is one of the best examples of leadership I have ever heard, given from Bill Campbell. He was/is an executive coach to individuals such as Steve Jobs, the Google Founders (and many more) as well as Chairman of the board at Intuit.
A man asks a question late in the interview around how leaders should traverse the unstable landscape between political issues within their company. Bill’s answer is spot on.
“As a CEO, your job is to break ties within the company, and if you cannot see where the ties are within your organization – then you shouldn’t be there. You need to get to the bottom of it ASAP.”
Watch the clip at the 56:00 mark and if you have time watch the entire hour long interview.