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The Start-up Grind

January 21, 2012

We wanted to share some quick reflections having to do with two different takes on entrepreneurship and the hard work being that being successful requires (but by no means guarantees!)…   

The first is care of Steve Jobs whose book I finally finished (a GREAT book!).  In the final chapter, his biographer Walter Isaacson shares a number of direct quotes he accumulated from Steve during their time together.  Each is more profound than the next.  One that struck me hardest was this one on Jobs’ definition of an entrepreneur.

I hate it when people call themselves entrepreneurs when what they really want to do is launch a startup and then sell or go public so they can cash in and move on.  They are unwilling to do the work it takes to build a real company, which is the hardest work you can do in business.  But that’s how you really make a contribution and add to the legacy of those that went before.  You build a company that will still stand for something a generation or two from now.    …create a company to last, not just to make money.

The next reflection actually delves deeper on the nature of difficult work a startup requires from committed entrepreneurs…  even those looking to cash out.   As founder can attest, particularly in the early days when the hours are long and non-stop– you find yourself wrapped up in must-do activities you never imagined that have nothing to do with why you founded the company.  Legal, accounting, payroll, financial modeling, recruiting, salary negotiating, office space rental and design… the list goes on and on.   This post from a respected entrepreneur and early-stage VC  puts it best when he shares not only that much of startup work is unpleasant and tedious, but also that some of the best opportunities come by finding solutions to address the tedium (some excerpts)…

There are great startup ideas lying around unexploited right under our noses. One reason we don’t see them is a phenomenon I call schlep blindness. Schlep was originally a Yiddish word but has passed into general use in the US. It means a tedious, unpleasant task.

No one likes schleps, but hackers especially dislike them. Most hackers who start startups wish they could do it by just writing some clever software, putting it on a server somewhere, and watching the money roll in—without ever having to talk to users, or negotiate with other companies, or deal with other people’s broken code. Maybe that’s possible, but I haven’t seen it.

No, you can’t start a startup by just writing code. I remember going through this realization myself. There was a point in 1995 when I was still trying to convince myself I could start a company by just writing code. But I soon learned from experience that schleps are not merely inevitable, but pretty much what business consists of. A company is defined by the schleps it will undertake. And schleps should be dealt with the same way you’d deal with a cold swimming pool: just jump in. Which is not to say you should seek out unpleasant work per se, but that you should never shrink from it if it’s on the path to something great.

The most dangerous thing about our dislike of schleps is that much of it is unconscious. Your unconscious won’t even let you see ideas that involve painful schleps. That’s schlep blindness.

How do you overcome schlep blindness? Frankly, the most valuable antidote to schlep blindness is probably ignorance. Most successful founders would probably say that if they’d known when they were starting their company about the obstacles they’d have to overcome, they might never have started it. Maybe that’s one reason the most successful startups of all so often have young founders.

In practice the founders grow with the problems. But no one seems able to foresee that, not even older, more experienced founders. So the reason younger founders have an advantage is that they make two mistakes that cancel each other out. They don’t know how much they can grow, but they also don’t know how much they’ll need to. Older founders only make the first mistake.

The trick I recommend is to take yourself out of the picture. Instead of asking “what problem should I solve?” ask “what problem do I wish someone else would solve for me?”  …there’s plenty still broken in the world, if you know how to see it.

-read the post

If you are in the midst of a startup, you know what we are talking about.  If this post finds you at a point in your life where you are considering taking the plunge, look before you leap!  Talk to your start-up friends.  Be sure you have the passion and clarity of vision (not just the funding!) to get you through the schleps!

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