By the time we hear about a startup, it’s usually successful: thousands of customers and venture capitalists throwing money at it plus free food, foosball tables, and company-sponsored back rubs. You can get the impression that startups work like this: (1) you come up with a clever idea, (2) you work on it for a few months with your buddies, (3) customers love it, and (4) it’s off to “infinity and beyond.”
The reason that journalists and bloggers write about startups that fit this stereotype is that they are so rare. If most of them worked out like this, the rare success story wouldn’t be news because it's so common. If you’re considering a startup, review this checklist of the realities that you’ll face:
1. Average people want to make money. Good people want to do something cool. Great people want to change the world. Therefore, if you want to attract great people, your goal should be to change the world.
2. Great people are often freaky and different from “normal.” If you restrict your hiring to people have the perfect, relevant, blemish-free background, you’ll miss out on some of the best catches. You need to hire to gain strengths not to avoid weaknesses.
3. Great products take time and adding more people to a project doesn’t reduce the time. If you succeed, you won’t even remember when you first shipped a product. If you fail, it won’t matter when you shipped.
4. Everybody has to fix version 1. There’s no such thing as a perfect first version of a product—the best case is you ship a very good first attempt that the market adopts despite its flaws. Actually, there is more danger that the market will pass you by as you “perfect” your product than you ship something that permanently tarnishes your image.
5. Every good CEO is scared stiff. If you or your CEO isn’t worried, you’ve got a bozo in charge. Besides not knowing if the product is good, if customers will like it enough to pay for it, if the competition isn’t going to slay you, and if you’ll run out of money before you generate sales, there’s no reason to worry about anything.
6. Ideas are easy; implementation is hard. The “Eureka!” moment of a startup is vastly over-rated if not downright imagined. The hard part isn’t coming up with the idea—it’s implementing the idea and making money doing it.
7. “Hard” is not the opposite of “fun.” Many people think that startups are fun: sitting around inventing the future with cool, beautiful people. The reality is that startups are brutally hard because there’s no cushion in case you fail. However, “hard” is “fun” for the right people. Indeed, “easy” is only “fun” for a short while.
8. The future doesn’t get better—it only gets different. The future is seldom what it’s cracked up to be—yes, you look forward to that day when you’re shipping, revenue is rolling in, and you’re finally “done.” The truth is that when that “better” day arrives, the challenges simply change, not go away, because that's when you start dealing with angry customers, returns, copycats, and impatient investors.
9. Competition starts at $50 million. The startup game gets truly interesting when you reach the $50 million in annual sales milestone. That’s when you’re too big to be small, and too small to be big. That’s when you’re worth competing with and when people start expecting a lot from you.
10. The truth will set you free. The most valuable commodity in a startup is the truth—the truth about what your product can and cannot do, what its shortcomings and strengths are, and what you do and do not know. Telling the truth takes a lot less energy too because there is only one truth whereas there are many lies to keep straight.
A startup is a beautiful thing, but as with many beautiful things, you need to know what you’re getting into. These ten realities will help you truly understand, and appreciate, what you’re getting into.