The Hollywood view
It’s almost become a cliche in any Hollywood movie: the scene shows the startup co-founders hanging out at a raucous party in a club. They’re not necessarily out dancing but they are sitting at a table having a conversation about startups, or technology, or other business related matter. The idea that hollywood wants to focus you on here is that those people go to parties with gorgeous models, party all night and work all day.
I’ve been to some of those parties. They existed back in the 1990s during the dotcom boom. The thing that few people would tell you is that the work rythm back then was work 9am to 10pm, then go to one of those parties (sometimes because the food was free there) and then come back to work around midnight or 1am, plugin another couple of hours of work and then go home to sleep.
The funny thing is that I’ve yet to see a movie scene where the startup founder is sitting at his computer (or lying in bed with his/her laptop), exhausted from the previous day’s work but still plugging away on work related matters in the middle of the night, long past their significant other’s bedtime (if the significant other is good enough to not have walked out the door). No, that scene where the founder is chatting online with his co-founder, plugging away because the work must be done, doesn’t seem to make it past the cutting room floor.
Reality is different
Anyone that tells you that the birthing of a startup is easy is either someone who has never built a startup or someone who has conveniently forgotten the hard work that has gone into getting to a point of success.
To give you an idea of how un-smooth that road can be, let me give you a quick overview of Keepskor to date (and I can do this without even revealing what the product is going to be). Keepskor started out as a rough idea around doing something in the arena of gaming for health issues. I had gotten gravely sick last year (came pretty close to death, actually) and had to completely change my lifestyle, from sleep patterns, to diet, to stress management. In other words, I had to completely change a large part of myself. In order to do so, I set up mini-games, mainly mental ones, that would give me points for good behavior and take points away for doing things that were not. The gaming part (and its related point system) are still part of the company but everything else in it is radically different. In fact, when the product comes out, we won’t even have the health component as part of our first iteration.
Along the way, as we were refining the mission, my business partner and I went through multiple iterations of the product, its associated business model, and its core delivery platforms. Last week, I talked about how we were making some bets on Android, iOS, and the mobile web. In its initial iteration, Keepskor did not even have a mobile component but now it is one of the most important channels.
All that to say that we’re probably sitting at 135 degrees from where we started: not a full 180 but quite a change from the initial idea.
… and this is not so different from most other companies. Paypal use to be a company that allowed you to send money from one PDA to another; Google was born as a way to rank research papers; Twitter was a service for sending SMS messages to multiple people. Or you can look at older examples: Pixar was a company that made animation software; Nokia sold plastic boots; IBM sold typewriters; WPP (one of the largest advertising companies in the world) and Vivendi (one of the largest media companies in the the world) were both utilities companies.
Startups, like any other companies pivot and often pivot in fairly drastic ways. Along those pivots, there is sometimes pain as people who were hired to do a job have to do a different one and adapt or leave. Ben Horowitz has a great post on the CEO’s psychology when it comes to those hard times but I would venture the advice goes to all startup members. Life in a startup is not a smooth road but one’s ability to not quit when the going is tough is what makes for a really great team.
Beyond the pivots, there will be many times along the way when one looks at the market and it looks like your competitors are going to win. They might but only if you let them. Startups are like marathons in that sense: you push on, even in the face of doubt. Mark Birch had a great post on that a few month ago that reminded me that it is always darkest before dawn.
However, as you get to past the first release and on to the next round, the difficulties of the first round get erased and the story that gets told is one where success comes easily, without much effort.
The lesson here is that what separates the true startups from the wanna-bes is that ability to continue adapting through changing conditions and keep pushing through to success.