When a startup is more start than up
Blog post by ELP Student Emily Kuhn (Computer Science | Class of 2020)
Last weekend was especially hot in Ann Arbor; reaching a heat index upwards of 120 degrees. Most people battled this by hiding in the comfort of their air conditioned home, or lounging at the pool all day. Unfortunately for me, I had neither a pool membership or AC, so I decided to use the one luxury you get when you intern 45 minutes away from your hometown. I went back to my parent’s house.
There I basked in the AC, raided the fridge, and played with my puppies. All while my parents were out of town enjoying life as empty nesters. The only other person home was my older brother Chris, whose night shifts as a package handler in the shipping industry had made him nocturnal. He woke up everyday at 9pm sharp and spent a couple hours eating, taking online classes, and relaxing before heading off to work.
That saturday night he came downstairs worried about job searching after college graduation. I gave him some ideas of how to prepare, and he thanked be but seemed confused at how quickly I was able to fling resources at him.
“How do you know all of these things?” he asked.
“I’m always searching for jobs.” I responded automatically, but that only confused him more.
“What do you mean? You’re an entrepreneur, you’ve got it made.” Now we were both confused. I explained to him that although I currently interned at Desai, a startup accelerator, I was nowhere near what the average person would call an ‘entrepreneur’. That title was more deserving of the founders who went through the programming we offered.
We continued talking until he had to leave for work, but his comment wouldn’t leave my mind. Was that the general consensus? Did everyone think that people who chose to become entrepreneurs were set for life with money, prestige, and job security? Maybe the big shots like Uber, Tesla, and Snapchat have painted a rose-colored image of what the lifestyle of an entrepreneur is.
Maybe the problem is that most people don’t get to see the long journey that giants like these go through to rise to the mainstream; or more importantly, the journeys of the other companies who never could.
That’s where I think I’m lucky. My internship at a pre-seed accelerator this summer has given me glimpses into the life of founders whose companies are nowhere close to unicorns. In fact, some of them don’t have customers or even MVP’s. In my opinion these founders are the rawest form of entrepreneurs, because they are experiencing the most delicate phase of their company, the beginning. If you don’t survive the beginning, then you don’t even have a journey.
Therefore, based on the experiences at my internship, I’d like to share some struggles that every entrepreneur faces when “starting” their startup:
Dreaming is easy, doing is hard
Everyone has had an idea that they thought was worth a million dollars. Some genius app that would disrupt an industry, or some new invention that would revolutionize a modern day experience.
Dreaming of solutions to problems is always the easiest part. How many of them could you implement though? Creating your business model, determining market fit, researching strategy and competition, and building your team; all before even creating an MVP. There’s a reason so many of our million dollar ideas never come to fruition. It’s because it takes time, commitment, and passion.
Founders have to apply all three everyday for years. Which leads me to their second challenge,
There is no “9 to 5”
Startups are not a full time job, they’re a full time lifestyle. To hit all the milestones needed to take your business off the ground with just an MVP takes countless sleepless nights. Especially in the early stages when your team is limited to your co-founders because if you guys aren’t working on your startup then no one is.
Treating your startup like a normal nine to five is treating it to fail because not only does it signal to investors that you’re not serious about your solution, but there are also so many more things to account for when you’re a founder and not just an employee. That being said the scariest thing about being a founder in the beginning is actually the things that you can’t account for.
Embracing the unknown
Founders have to be comfortable with the vague and ambiguous. In such an early stage there are so many aspects of your company left up to assumption that you have to be willing to adapt quickly to unpredictable outcomes or pivot the product constantly. Even founders who have had previous startups are not fully aware of the decisions they’ll have to make to keep their new business afloat. When your startup is this early, every decision is critical to its growth and long-term stability.
They can’t be in it for the money
How can you pay yourself before you even have a product to market? Easy, you don’t. Most of your time at the beginning of your startup will go unpaid. Even after you have an MVP in the market it’s important to keep pushing funds towards the other labor and tools that will drive your business forward. That’s why it’s so important to be passionate about your project because no one’s going to pay you to make it work, at least not in the beginning.
Knowing it could all fail in the end
There is no secret formula of success for a startup. Even if the company survives past the three year mark, a notable milestone, or successfully raises rounds, the startup could still fail for a million possible reasons. An easy statistic often thrown around the space is that around 90% of startups will fail.
Founders know this yet they still put everything they have into their vision. They are working day and night, without salary, pioneering into the unknown for a chance to see their dreams become a reality. Because to a serious founder, failing is better than never trying.
Every company has to have a start before they become a startup. Which means every successful entrepreneur has gone through these trials, realizations, and hardships, and not only managed to survive but scale. The above isn’t meant to scare anyone away from starting a company or becoming involved in early stage startups. It hopefully however gives a glimpse into the sweat, blood, and passion that builds foundations for the unicorns you know today.