The startup road is littered with bodies of dead startups and crushed dreams. The chances of your startup making it and ever being successful are extremely low. Many of those dead bodies were perfectly capable of success, but uncontrollable changes in the markets or life in general can strike a final blow, with no warning, at any time.
Being the CEO of a startup is much like being Leonitis when he commanded his 300 Spartans to face the thousands of Persians in the narrow passage with the almost certainty of death. While this is exciting to think about, the consequences of defeat are real. Yes, it might not cost your life if your startup fails (though, sadly it could), but there is so much at stake. The physical toll and stress from the startup will definitely take years off your life.
Dropping out of college and turning down a corporate job were unconventional choices I’ve made with my life. There have been no shortage of critics along the way to point that out. People (many very close to me) are just waiting for the day they can say, “I told you so.” There is no road map to success when you start a business. Nobody tells you what to do next, and it’s a very lonely place to be.
I’m living with my parents to save money. I have the same car I’ve had since I started driving. I work 12 hour days. I don’t have any money. Chances are I’ll could go out of business at any time, just as Leonitis knew he would probably die in battle. It’s not rational to face the overwhelming odds, but like most real entrepreneurs, I’ve come to the realization that this is my only option. Just as a Spartan lives to fight and die in battle, an entrepreneur lives to chase his dreams of making a difference in the world, even if he never succeeds.
It’s an incredible uphill battle. You start with nothing — just an idea. You then have to recruit believers to follow you into this grim world. People have lives with plans already. Why should they change their current safe situation to join you? There is an extremely high demand for those with talent. They have good paying jobs so chances are the good generals are already taken and won’t join you. Chances are you are going to have to find people who you see a lot of potential in, yet aren’t proven. Like any army, if you pick a bad general, it will cost you the war.
Diplomacy is key. Make allies and navigate the waters carefully. Do not make any unnecessary enemies or burn bridges. Naturally, there will always be people who dislike you or won’t support you. Your best bet is to offer others any value you can. At the end of the day, everyone is really in it for themselves. If you take care of their wants and needs, you may one day be able to ask for a favor in return. Gardening your network is no small task. It takes dedication and a conscious effort. Stay true to your word and be genuine. You will slowly start to build a circle of people who support your cause and believe in your ability to succeed. Sometimes they’ll think you will end up making it eventually, but your guess is as good as theirs as to how that will end up happening.
It’s interesting how most great leaders across the ages were all students of history. Alexander the Great, Napoleon, even Hitler all read about past rulers and empires. The same applies for any entrepreneur. The more you study the lives of the greats, the more you learn what mistakes to avoid and spot patterns of success. Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Zuck all went through moments of incredible pain and looked failure square in the eyes. Learning their real story and not just seeing glamorized success is essential.
Lucky breaks do not exist. As you lead your team, you have to be scrappy, creative, and unconventional. If you follow the cookie cutter approach to business you will overspend and take too long. You have to constantly create opportunities that lead to big breaks. This is no science, yet absolutely necessary. The book “The Alchemist” says it best: You have to spot life’s omens and signs. Those who can see the signs will reach their treasure. If you cannot learn to see life’s omens, you will miss the boat. But if you learn to spot these signs, you will move fast enough to stay alive.
If I hadn’t decided to call a local journalist to talk about an experience, he wouldn’t have written the article about me that led to my first angel investor and I most likely would be out of business. My business partner at the time told me it was pointless to talk to journalist since I had no product. This wasn’t a lucky break, this was an opportunity created that kept me alive.
I consider myself successful only because I wake up everyday and get to work with my small team and do what I love more than anything in the world: work on my business. But I am not successful in the eyes of society. As of writing this post, my business hasn’t launched, we are quickly running out of money, and this could all crumble at any time… Yet, I wake up, look failure in the eye, ignore all my critiques, and take another step. There is no plan B. The odds I face are incredible, but I am willing to die fighting in battle.