Awasu » Taking a bullet for Awasu?
Wednesday 28th March 2007 6:53 PM [General]

Paul Graham has another crackerjack article where he talks about some of the common reasons people give for not launching a startup, and then proceeds to knock them all down :-)

He points out that now his startup incubator company has been going for a while, they're probably the world experts on people who aren't sure if they want to start a company or not, and as someone who's always been intrigued by what makes people do what they do, it was a fascinating read.

You need a lot of determination to succeed as a startup founder. It's probably the single best predictor of success.

For a while, RSS readers were becoming the new instant messaging client. That is, every kid in junior high and his dog wanted to write one and the developers' forums were full of questions like "i wnt 2 wr8 rss prgrm. wr 2 start?!!!" Lots of feed readers have come and gone since then but Awasu is still going strong, churning out features and definitely no shortage of things for the next couple of releases. Stick-to-it-iveness is definitely an essential quality! :-)

One side effect of being determined is that if you work hard, it doesn't really matter what you happen to be doing, you'll probably achieve some kind of success at it. And Y Combinator are taking this idea to a whole 'nother level:

[W]e're so sure the founders are more important than the initial idea that we're going to try something new this funding cycle. We're going to let people apply with no idea at all. If you want, you can answer the question on the application form that asks what you're going to do with "We have no idea." If you seem really good we'll accept you anyway. We're confident we can sit down with you and cook up some promising project.

This is pretty amazing :blink: but also a really intriguing idea. The people you've got are always the most important ingredient for the success of a project [1] but this is really putting yer money where yer mouth is :clap: It hints at something Paul doesn't mention in his article but Joel Spolsky has written about many times: the importance of being able to get things done. This is a definitely a critical skill to have (his other key criteria is "be smart" :roll:) and if you're the kind of person who's perpetually "95% done" on the task at hand, you're not going to last very long trying to bootstrap a company. Ditto for the perfectionist who has always got "just one last thing to do" before releasing something. But if you're smart and can get things done, you'll have at least a reasonable amount of success at most things you try [2].

Paul also talks about a "need for structure" and the fact that getting a job is the "default" action.

I'm told there are people who need structure in their lives. This seems to be a nice way of saying they need someone to tell them what to do. I believe such people exist.

I can definitely agree with that :-) and his story about the Real Madrid soccer team is a telling one.

[David Beckham] said [the many different languages spoken by the players] was never an issue, because everyone was so good they never had to talk. They all just did the right thing.

As a musician I see this all the time; a bunch of great musicians get together and start banging out some fantastic music, even though they may have never played the song together before (or even met each other :o). But they're good enough to know instinctively what everyone else is doing (and just as importantly, are actively listening to what's happening). Again, it's the difference between sitting around waiting to be told what to do and taking a bit of initiative and making things happen.

But I think the big reason people don't take the great leap is here:

Perhaps some people are deterred from starting startups because they don't like the uncertainty. If you go to work for Microsoft, you can predict fairly accurately what the next few years will be likeā€”all too accurately, in fact. If you start a startup, anything might happen.

Starting a company requires an enormous amount of faith in yourself, in your ability to step into the unknown and deal with whatever comes your way. I guess my background in jumping out of aeroplanes and bumming my way around the world was good training for that but most people just don't have that kind of self-confidence. Thing is, you're not just born with it, generally speaking, the only way to get it is to test yourself, deliberately drop yourself right into the middle of it and see if you can get out :whistle: Sometimes you won't make it but as they say, what doesn't kill you can only make you stronger :unsure:

I think a lot of people, deep down, know they don't have the drive and determination needed to make things happen, at least, not to the degree needed to get a company up off the ground and coupled with an unwillingness to dive into the unknown, end up taking that safe and secure 9-5 job at the bank :-| Starting a company is a pretty tough ordeal to put yourself through, on many levels. You need to be really good at what you do and at least moderately competent at everything else, work incredibly hard, be even more determined, be able to deal with the million-and-one things Fate will throw at you (and throw them at you, she will :roll:) And I guess a lot of people aren't willing to test themselves to that degree [3].

Come to think of it, maybe it's not that surprising more people don't start their own company. It's a lot of work and as I'm always telling my students, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it :roll:

[1] Of course, everyone says this but if you watch what they do, very few actually back it up with their actions.
[2] On the flip side, I'm reminded of an article that made the rounds a while back that talked about incompetence. The authors pointed out that the less capable someone was at doing something, the less likely they were to be aware of it. In other words, the old saw that "the more you know, the more you realize how little you know." The guys at the top of their field know enough to realize that there's so much more left for them to learn and it's those at the bottom end of the curve who think they can write 100% bug-free code, 100% of the time or are Yngwie Malmsteen re-incarnated. A commonly-seen corollary of this in the I.T. field is top-flight programmers who don't see themselves as anything more than merely competent but are bemused as to why everyone else around them seems to be so incapable :-) I suspect a similar thing holds for techies who might be thinking about starting a company; they simply can't believe that more than a few people would actually pay money for what they do :roll:
[3] Although even fewer would be willing to test themselves to this degree (a bullet-proof vest maker demonstrating his product :blink:).

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