Starting on an entrepreneurial journey is not easy. There are a lot of expectations attached to being a founder – you are expected to walk and talk like the next Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, you are expected to hustle 24×7 and grow rapidly, hit a billion dollar valuation, and whatnot. Such expectations pressurise entrepreneurs into harbouring a lot of unnecessary stigmas in their minds. As an Entrepreneurship Training Fellow at Capria VentureBasecamp, I get to spend 1:1 time with a lot of early-stage entrepreneurs, and I regularly observe evidence of such stigmas. I can resonate with these deeply, having dealt with some in my own early-stage startup journey. I feel there is a need to address these issues and re-calibrate our expectations from entrepreneurs. I’m putting down my 2 cents around these stigmas, and I hope this provides relief to a lot of stressed out founders:
No plan survives first contact with reality
In my early days as a founder, I would maintain a neat little journal where I’d scribble my goals and To-Dos everyday. I had it all planned out – from my product-launch date, to how much money I’d have in the bank after 2 years. A year later, I look at these notes and smile at my naivete. Planning your startup journey falls prey to the calculation problem – you just don’t have enough data for an accurate simulation of the future. Unaccounted delays, underestimated budgets, unforeseen personal situations, and general chaos of the universe – there’s no way to plan for these. You’ll experience delays, mini-failures and course-corrections multiple times in your journey. You’re going to have to improvise and wing it in a lot of situations, and that’s okay.
Not all Gyan is relevant
In India, a lot of us grow up to thrive in a syllabus-driven approach to life, thanks to our education system. It’s natural then for entrepreneurs to seek a universal recipe for success. Most of this ‘syllabus’ is made up of pieces of random advice stitched together, from reading random articles written by ‘startup gurus’ or from studying someone else’s success story. Mainstream startup journalism (or startup porn, as I like to call it) is full of PR-optimised self-aggrandising content that’s rich in survivor-bias and its consumption is embedding unrealistic expectations in budding founders.
As entrepreneurs, it’s very important for us to realise that we’re all on our own unique journeys, and that we have to create our own playbooks, which come from truth-seeking and deep observations in our respective domains. The best source of objective reality is to talk to your customers, they’ll give you all the gyan you need. And it doesn’t hurt to have a few friends and mentors (preferably founders themselves, working in a similar space) to bounce off thoughts and ideas against. I personally have learnt to identify and discern a lot of armchair gyan. I also acknowledge that I myself might come across in this article as someone throwing gyan at you. You can totally write me off if the gyan in this article doesn’t feel relevant to your startup journey. And that’s okay.
You don’t need to have all the answers
I had a kick-ass idea, a unique insight in a huge white space, and I set off to build my startup around it. Most founders do this, until they begin to painfully realise that building a sustainable and investable business entails so much more than just building a lovable product. There are a number of things an entrepreneur needs to think about – 12 of them, to be precise, as per VentureBasecamp’s Critical Success Elements. What does the roadmap look like? What is your go-to-market strategy? What’s the market opportunity? What does the competitive landscape look like? What constitutes great customer experience? etc. One doesn’t need to have immediate answers to all of these, as long as they have the right experimental approach – keep identifying and testing your assumptions, build and test hypotheses around what you already know, and keep learning from customer feedback. There are things you don’t know, and you’ll unearth these answers along the way. And that’s okay.
Take your time
Startup porn makes you aspire to become a millionaire before 30 and it makes you feel like something is wrong if you’re not scaling as fast as PayTm. It makes you feel guilty for not hustling 16 hours a day. What’s all this hurry about? I’ve realised that good things take time to build. Some of you might say, “But if I have limited runway, then I obviously need to hurry!” Again, why do you think you have limited runway and that you have only one attempt at this? If you run out of money in the bank, you can always go back to being employed, to save up and re-plan for your next attempt at solving the problem you’re so passionate about (and maybe keep working on it on the side, till you’re ready to jump back in full-time). Your actual runway is your entire leftover lifespan, and if you really want to build something meaningful, you’ll keep at it. So take your time man. If you’re afraid that someone else might seize the opportunity before you, or that timing and execution speed is your only entry-barrier, then perhaps you aren’t the best person to do justice to this opportunity anyway. And that’s okay.
You don’t have to be a Unicorn
VCs will tell you that your startup needs to have the potential to be a billion dollar business, but that’s because of their constraints – they’re optimising on their effort to get a return on their money, and ensuring that each of their risky investments can grow big enough to bail out their entire portfolio. Not every startup needs to be a billion dollar opportunity. You don’t have to make a dent in the universe. You don’t have to significantly disrupt an entire industry. True entrepreneurs derive validation not from valuation, but from creating real value for their customers. Maybe you’re a bootstrapped lifestyle startup that will sustainably create value in a particular niche, which isn’t too big from a VC lens. And that’s okay.
You are not Superman
There’s too much pressure on entrepreneurs – fighting fires of the brutal present, projecting an optimistic future to employees and investors, meeting the expectations of customers, living with tons of uncertainty and the fear of failure everyday, and keeping sane amidst the chaos. Starting up is hard enough, and founder burnout is more common than we think. It’s high time we encourage our entrepreneurs to respect the limitations of the mind and body. You can take a break from time to time, you can confide in friends and other founders about your challenges and shortcomings, you can change your lifestyle if your current one is too demanding, you can start seeing a therapist if things get too overwhelming. You can tell people you’re not perfect, and that’s okay.
I hope reading this article helps you look at your own startup journey with a slightly relieved lens. After all, why should starting up be a nerve-wracking experience? Founders who are sorted in their heads are more likely to run sorted businesses. Did you resonate with any of these? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!