“You don’t have what it takes,” I told the founder as he stared at me, crestfallen like a child who just found out that he didn’t make the team.
“I do, I’ve worked harder than anyone else…” he pleaded.
“It’s not about hard work, it’s about solving hard problems with the least amount of work,” I told him.
“So what should I do?” he asked.
“You should quit… and go work for someone who does have what it takes,” I told him, without a moment’s reservation or regret.
“You should do something that’s much easier and that allows you to refine your skills. Right now, you’re one of three people at a startup when you should be one of 200 people at a mid-sized company,” I added, ending the meeting.
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Most Folks Don’t Have What it Takes
You what I’ve learned after 25 years of doing this startup thing is that 99% of people simply don’t have what it takes to lead a startup — and thank God. Leading a startup is a brutal pursuit. Most days are a death march in which you work horrific hours under massive duress waiting for your chance … to join the 80% of startups that die off.
What person in their right mind wants to run marathons that end 80% of the time in them failing between miles 18 and 25? You’d have to be an unbalanced and desperate person to want to run a marathon in which the last five miles are filled with people getting tackled and sucker punched to the ground.
So, if you’re reading this, chances are, candidly, you don’t have what it takes.
Said conversely, if you’re well adjusted, smart and not a masochist — congrats!
The Real Bubble: The Han Solo Delusion
I’m not worried about an economic bubble right now because, as I’ve pointed out many times, the two objectively frothy parts of the startup ecosystem are early- and late-stage valuations. In both cases, you have savvy investor pools who are buying shares with their eyes wide open.
No accredited investors at a demo day or on AngelList are looking at a three-month old company with an $8m valuation and thinking “this is a reasonable price.” Nope, they’re greedy bastards saying “this founder is getting me to pay 2-3 times the real price of this company, but frack it, if one of my 50 investments becomes a unicorn, I’m way in the black!”
In other words, the founders are all well aware of the dynamic: “I’m overcharging you because, if this does work, you will get paid off by the late-stage investors who will overpay!”
Now, the late-stage investors have their own version of this delusion: “I’m going to pay your unicorn price tag, but frack it, I’ve got downside protection because I get my money first!”
These two game dynamics might even be super healthy, because we’re all swinging for the fences — which is sort of our jobs, right? Founders and investors are told to be bold and the results are remarkable!
The delusion I’m concerned about is the Han Solo delusion:
Han Solo: Chewie? Chewie, is that you?
[Chewie grabs Han and shakes him]
Han Solo: Ch-Chewie! I can’t see, pal. What’s going on?
Han Solo: Luke? Luke’s crazy! He can’t even take care of himself, much less rescue anybody.
[Chewie barks again]
Han Solo: A Jedi Knight? Jeez, I’m out of it for a little while, everyone gets delusions of grandeur!
You see, we have Travis, Sacks, Musk, Drew, Marco, and Sophia out there doing awesome Jedi stuff in the Galaxy, and then a couple of kids stumble upon a lightsaber and think “I can take on a Sith Lord!”
That’s the problem we have right now: 100 startups coming out of an incubator with only 20 Jedi Knights. Remember what Yoda said:
“Always two there are, a master and an apprentice.”
There are too many Padawans right now and not enough teachers. The Galaxy is flooded with people who think they can do what founders do in their lives: sacrifice everything.
[ And let’s be honest here, it doesn’t always work out well for the most powerful Jedis. Luke left before his training was finished and lost a hand, and Anakin left his training and lost both legs and one of his arms. This Jedi business is ‘limb-losing’ business. ]
I can see the non-Jedi a mile away.
People who are willing to start companies if you give them money.
People who start companies if they find a developer to work for free.
People who are willing to start companies, but need to go to TED and Necker Island first.
People who are willing to start companies, but only if they can make the same money they made at Google.
Let’s be realistic: Giving up everything material and important in your life to go on a suicide mission is the work of Jedi, not civilians.
Look yourself in the mirror and ask:
- “Am I willing to sell everything I have to get one more month of payroll for my team to keep this company going?”
Then ask yourself…
- “Am I willing to max out my two credit cards and go $20,000 into debt to keep this startup going?”
Then ask yourself….
- “Am I willing to ask everyone on the team to work for deferred salary for the next 90 days while I try and save this company?”
If you’re not able to do those things, YOU DON’T HAVE WHAT IT TAKES.
It’s really common for people to want an extraordinary outcome for themselves in this life, but it’s very rare to see folks make extraordinary sacrifices for the chance to get one of those outcomes.
And to be sure, it is a chance. Folks wait in the wings for four hours to get a shot at open mic night at comedy clubs for decades — and never become famous. People play drums until their hands blister and bleed, and never get signed. (You haven’t seen “Whiplash”? Stop, buy it, and watch it tonight before “Fear the Walking Dead” — it’s more important.)
And if this essay pisses you off, and you think life-work balance and startups can be obtained, well, you’re part of the delusion. You’re probably just not being realistic, and you don’t have what it takes.
And that’s ok.
PS – Launch SCALE is our next event, on Oct 13 & 14 in San Francisco. 50+ speakers talking about growing startups. We have 3,000 founders coming for free (sign up here for a founder ticket), and if you’re a VC or service provider you can buy a ticket at launchscale.net.
PPS – Launch Mobile, Wearables & IoT is on Oct 15 & 16 in San Francisco (back-to-back!); 1,000 developers are coming, along with 1,000 founders of mobile startups. Same drill: developers and founders free here — everyone else buy a ticket at launchmw.com.