Somebody out of the blue contacts me, and at breakneck speed explains “the next Facebook idea.” Okay, so they don’t exactly say that, but that’s what they want me to think. I can almost picture their desktop wallpaper — some oversized image of Jack Dorsey in his black Prada suit, looking unnecessarily astute. Normally, I’d wish them well. But because on one occasion, it was somebody really close to me, I stopped everything. I felt that I had to snap them out of their trance. I wanted to tell them that I was also delusional once. Here, in essence, is what I told him.
I’ve learned a lot from interviewing those in tech that I admire, from Jason Fried to Steve Blank, David Karp, Chris Wanstrath, Jim Mckelvey, and Mike Maples. I would say it comes down to this: be suspicious of popular successes. I’ve come to appreciate that a lot goes on behind the scenes that is not recorded in the history books, and which never makes it on to Wikipedia.
The past offers few examples of the heroic founder with the insight to decipher — or even design — the future first time around. That person does not exist and never will. Instead, the most successful entrepreneurs started early, launching small, insignificant ventures while they were still young. This is an important point, but it’s often overlooked. It’s a young man’s and woman’s game.
Everybody wants to be the next Tony Hsieh and build an amazing company culture like Zappos, but nobody wants to sell cold slices of pizza like he did in college. Most never find out that he did.
For the rest of us, if we get the entrepreneurial bug later in life, we think it’s fine to skip what I call the the Kindergarten Startup. That’s something you pursue because it interests you. It’s not even a startup. It’s a hack, an evening project, driven by an inquisitiveness and curiosity similar to that of a kindergartener. It gives you an opportunity to play – and play is good.
What happens is that we sometimes correlate our age with the type of venture we should pursue. A guy reaching his 30s, believing that Venture Capitalists may no longer be seduced by his sweet tender age, might attempt to build the next Facebook. A new mom might start a business selling products like nursing covers, changing pads, and plastic-free baby bottles to new moms. To our detriment, however, these old/new entrepreneurs forget that the founders we are trying to emulate all went through a Kindergarten Startup. In many cases, they went through several. Facebook was Mark Zuckerberg’s seventh or eighth project.
Business depends on acquired methodologies, which is why incremental learning is so important. In the “get rich quick” startup milieu, we often disregard the idea of natural progression, instead blindly following hubris and ambition. We attempt huge leaps before we’ve learned to walk.
Failure is not only an option in an entrepreneur’s first few businesses. It may be a necessity. Because out of failure rises success.
Entrepreneurship is the only occupation that applauds this type of preposterous thinking.
Paul Graham promotes the view that it’s a bad idea to begin with big ambitions, because the bigger they are, the longer they are going to take to realize, and the longer you are projecting into the future, then the more likely you are going to be wrong. “The way to do really big things,” he says, “is to do really small things, and grow them bigger.”
What would we say to the pilot in training who seeks to fly passengers across the Atlantic in a Boeing 777 or the junior medical doctor insisting he’s ready to perform heart surgery? Yet many first-time entrepreneurs think nothing of starting out with the idea of building a billion-dollar company. The ease of raising money in Silicon Valley and the amount of cash, both public and private that is sloshing around entrepreneurs at the moment, doesn’t help.
Turning a profit is a skill that must be earned. Expecting to generate $1 million before your first $10 is crazy talk. Make that first $10 then work from there. Do it right, over and over, and eventually you’ll make it to $1 million.
Image: Library of Congress