It’s not about the money

One of the strange thing that happens when you decide to move into the startup world is that every person out of that world assumes that you’re in it just for the money. There is  a general assumption that people go do startups only to get rich.

But the truth is much more complicated and ultimately comes down to a simple fact: it’s not about the money.

Is it about the idea?

As I’m now on startup number 6, with 4 of the previous 5 being pretty successful, people often ask me about why I keep going back to the startup well again and again and the truth is that I don’t go back to it as much as I’m drawn back to it by an idea.

I’ve often told people asking me for advice about making the jump that there is a simple truth to doing a startup: it’s hard and unless you’re truly passionate and truly believe that you should not do something else, you might want to rethink jumping in.

Startups are about somewhat crazed devotion to the fact that you can make a difference in the market you’re looking to address. Some would say that it’s a crazed devotion to a particular idea but the fact is that the initial idea one kicks off with rarely turns into the final product that enters the market. Through refining and careful iteration, an original idea gets more polished and, along the way, iterates into some variation of the idea to eventually become a product.

To try to build a product otherwise, getting overly attached to your idea because it’s yours, is to create potential issues further down the line. On the other hand, to start with a strong idea and, while listening to feedback from people in the market, refine it so it gets a more solid reception from customers is the beginning of a life-long dialogue that will create fantastic products.

The Steve Jobs Exception

There is, of course, the Steve Jobs exception. Many people will say that Steve Jobs did not really listen to the market and just built products that he thought would resonate with consumers. There are, however, two facts to consider when you’re throwing in the Steve Jobs exception:

  1. You are not Steve Jobs
  2. Even Steve Jobs listened to the market

The first one is self-explanatory: Steve Jobs had this rare mix of marketer, product manager, and market listener that few people get naturally. We can all strive to become as good as he was but he had a natural facility that does not come easily to most of us. One can hope to near that genius but it may not be necessary to be successful.

Furthermore, one can look back at Steve Jobs’ work and realize that even he would listen to the market. The iPod and iTunes used to only offer DRM-protected music but when Jobs realized that the market was starting to develop an alternative with DRM-free music, he quickly jumped in front of the bandwagon, endorsing the trend.

While the iPod was initially a music device, Jobs famously claimed that there was no demand for video on a device in that kind of footprint. He later reversed himself by introducing the video iPod and then allowing video on the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. In fact, video is an increasingly important part of Apple’s business, with the focus on increased screen resolution being part of that push.

So ideas, along with an ear to the market are a key to success.

Is it about independence?

Some people would argue that having to listen to the market means that the independence that has been claimed as a landmark of startup does not truly exist, that while one is no longer beholden to an employer, they are now beholden to customers and I would agree with that position. Independence does not exist in any ecosystem as the actions of a player in the ecosystem always has an impact on other players.

When one looks at any environment, there is no true independence. For example, as I write this column, I may feel that I’m working in complete independence; but my publishers, as well as you the reader, have a say as to how successful the column is: if you don’t read it, it fails.

In the same way, in a startup, one is dependent on the market accepting the startup’s product or on external partners providing appropriate services. Inside a startup, the product person is dependent on the technical people to help refine the vision (even as a technical co-founder, the limitation of your own knowledge need to be filled by other people); the technical person is dependent on the product person articulating their vision clearly; the product person is dependent either on a sales team or on customers (if the role of product and sales have been collapsed) to help define the way the product ought to move forward; and all parties are dependent on their own ability to attract appropriate talent as the company grows. Ultimately, the company may also be dependent on some investors to help it run through times when savings and bootstrapping do not cover costs.

So going into a startup is not about independence but rather about accepting a different set of dependency.

 So what is it about?

Ultimately, doing a startup is about scratching an itch or realizing that there is something you really want to explore behind a certain hunch you have. It’s about having your dreams haunted by certain concepts you have to corral. It’s about feeling distracted, first in your spare time, but increasingly when other things ought to be done, by what-ifs, how-do-Is, and let’s-fix-its. Eventually, it’s about giving in to trying to solve a problem because it is easier to do so than it is to resist.

Initially, it is difficult to articulate why you make the jump. You know you have to make it but it’s not clear as to why you know that. And then, progressively, as the product or service you’re building starts taking shape, a simple realization comes in: it’s about creativity and about birthing a new idea. It’s probably the male equivalent to carrying a baby for 9 months and seeing it come into the world (and note here, that startup life can often be punctuated by the same hormonal ups and down and the same level of lack of comfort that pregnancy appears to have).

What about the money?

At the end of the day, it’s about that thing you’re building.

When Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook, he didn’t sit down and say “I’m going to create a web site that will be worth $100 billion.” Instead, he sat down and felt he had to build something interesting with a social component.

When Sergey Brin and Larry Page built Google, they didn’t set out to build a better way to advertise; they built a search engine because they were curious about who was referencing their papers. They sat down and built a cool search engine, and eventually realized that they had a new model for online advertising.

Creating a successful startup is difficult and doesn’t need the diversion of thinking about what money could be. Based on what I’ve witnessed over the last 20 years or so, the people who set out on the startup path with the concept of making a lot of money are seldom the ones who succeed.

Money comes and goes but good products tend to develop strong followings and strong followings are the root of establishing solid businesses. So go out, build something significant, make the appropriate modifications so that customers start begging for it and don’t worry about the money. If you build stuff people don’t want, you won’t make money anyway and will have to find a better way to adapt and present your product. And if you build something good, the money will take care of itself.


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