The real reasons to found a startup

It’s often hard to put your finger on why you want to start a company. Maybe you just want to tinker with a product. Maybe you’re inspired by seeing what others have managed to achieve. Maybe you want to change the world.

But many people think these things will motivate them to keep growing a company…

  • Getting funding (Stressful, time-consuming, and takes way longer than you’d like)
  • Revenue (Nice but always needs to grow!)
  • TV and media (Fun but temporary, often inaccurate)
  • Product launches (Exciting but stressful)
  • Exits (Have never heard anyone say it was “the best thing ever!”)
  • Panels and conferences (Fun but self-interested)

They won’t. The things above are, at best, brief pleasures. But the good news is, there’s a bunch of other stuff that is extremely motivating and good. Things that provide long-term happiness, as opposed to temporary pleasure. Joi Ito wrote a post in 2007 where he explained the difference:

“We often [try] to decide which decision will make us happier. We often mistake pleasure for happiness and make the choice that may be more pleasurable instead of the choice that would provide more long-term happiness. [...] It often takes self-control or will to choose happiness over pleasure. “

But when you’re just starting out, you don’t always have the experience to know what the happiness-inducing stuff will be. And I think we (as a community of startups) don’t talk about the gratifying things enough. We talk about funding, and events, and exits, and founders committing suicide instead. So I made a list of the things I’m most grateful for, the things that make me glad I decided to start a startup. Most of these I had no idea about when I began working on Gengo.

Learning
The gap between how much I learned as an employee and how much I’ve learned as a founder is vast. As a founder, there are so many areas that you just have to pick up (marketing, sales, legal, management, finance, fundraising etc) that you can’t help but learn a huge amount by default. And if you throw yourself into that challenge, you’ll learn even more. It’s extremely gratifying.

I’m not saying that it’s not valuable to work for a company. It shapes the way you think, often in great and positive ways. For instance, having a good manager at a larger company can set you up to be a great manager in the future. And it’s useful to know how large companies operate, if you want to be able to work with them. But there is nothing like running your own company to force you to learn.

Seeing the company grow up
It’s very gratifying to peek into a meeting and realize you are not needed, or to go on vacation and come back without worrying that you should have been there. Even better when people are coming up with great ideas and great work without even needing to talk to you. That’s truly pleasurable, to create something that has gone beyond you.

Watching individual staff grow up and develop
This is probably the most fun thing. My favourite example is when we’ve hired someone as an intern, and they’ve become a full-time staff member, and then gone on to get more and more responsibility because they are great. It’s awesome because you can so easily compare where they were to where they are now, and because they know the company inside and out. Maybe even better than you do.

While it’s sad when people leave, if they’ve grown hugely at your company, you’ll get pleasure from seeing them succeed elsewhere, and hopefully stay a part of their lives for a long time. That’s amazing.

Failing and recovering
I don’t want to dwell on this because I think Silicon Valley has such a massive erotic passion for “failing” that the word is overused more than “The Cloud”. However the kind of failing that I want to talk about is not about having your company die, it’s about making non-fatal mistakes (which are the nicest and friendliest kind). If you do things “right” and preserve enough runway, you perhaps get two chances to fail in a big way, per funding round, and recover.

I know after our Series A we massively failed in a product we tried to build. There were a number of really interesting after-effects of this. Firstly it made me realize viscerally that I could never let that particular mistake happen again. Secondly the company “learned” that too, and we put in place a bunch of new ideas to fix things. It’s the kind of thing you simply cannot learn in college, you cannot really learn in a big company unless you’re very near the top. And best of all it didn’t kill us. Nice.

Changing your perspective and technique over time
There was this interesting discussion on Reddit recently about why you should watch movies more than once, which boiled down to the fact that as you change as a person, you notice new things. I think that change of perspective applies to startups in two big ways.

Firstly, as you learn as a person, you look at the same problems in different ways, and can evolve your solution with your experience. It kind of gives you the chance to have another go, and use your bigger brain to solve the problem in a better way. For example, staff performance issues are a lot easier to deal with after you’ve experienced them a couple of times. Small crises get put into perspective. You know your own strengths better.

The other way is that the company changes. So the first time you have a problem (like sales slow down) you have limited resources and limited knowledge. Whereas the second time it comes up, maybe you have new team members, or some new technology, or new contacts, and you can be a lot more creative and resourceful. I’m always thankful and gratified when we’re able to do this.

Office culture
I don’t ever want to work somewhere where there’s not at least some element of joking around in the office. You can make laughter a near-certainty if it’s your own company. That is very compelling to me. I don’t mean slacking off or being a dumbass, I just mean having a good laugh at silly stuff every so often. That’s a nice life.

Seeing teams emerge with complementary and competing needs 
There’s a sort of delicious moment in the evolution of a company where teams know what they are doing, and have motivations that are very clear (and beneficial) and unique. I don’t mean a kind of Game Of Thrones-style disingenuous wargame going on. I just mean that it’s gratifying to create an ecosystem where teams believe in their own needs, and have high motivation to make sure they get the resources of the company to do cool stuff. Creative conflict is massively productive and exciting.

User delight
This is one of the more obviously pleasurable aspects. Seeing a user comment that’s glowing with positivity is just unquestionably great. What surprised me is how far they’ll go.

I think before you start a company you never expect someone to say “X is awesome!!!!!!!!!, I love you guys, I want to work there!” but people do say that kind of crazy stuff about good products and good companies.

On top of that, at Gengo we’re lucky enough to provide thousands of translators with income, and they tell us about the trips they’ve been able to make, or the family security that’s improved, with that money. That’s amazing and humbling and eternally motivating.

Making cool things
Successful production of design and technology is an inherently fragile and ephemeral process. Even good teams rarely get it right. You only have to read the mountains of literature on design and product management to realize that even good teams struggle constantly with this stuff. It’s very hard to attain.

So it’s extremely pleasurable to be part of that when it works, and have the chance occasionally to work on the 10% or so of projects that go smoothly and produce great results. For me this is the most beautiful thing, to work with great people and have moments where we’re producing outstanding work that’s exciting and innovative and cool.

I think if you are only focused on the results, you never get to enjoy this process, those precious moments when the wind is perfect and it’s sunny and you’re balanced and sailing.

People building technology on top of your technology
There’s this huge amount of trust that is displayed when a company decides to build on your API. Especially if they build something with the assumption that you exist. Like, we build on AWS because we assume they’ll be around for as long as we need.

It’s a big leap, especially for a small company, to say “I trust this enough to make a bet on it”. And it’s exciting, because people often build cool things that you’d never thought of. So seeing the first signs of that is immensely cool.

The icing on the cake for us is when an investor asks us “Have you heard of company X? I think they are a competitor” and you can tell them they are actually operating on top of your API. Nice.

Becoming “obvious”
There’s this really nice moment that happens (and it’s easiest to observe over Twitter) where someone will ask “How do I do X” and someone — who you have no idea even existed — will reply “I use Gengo”. To the point where it’s an “obvious” answer to a question. This is just an all-round great feeling, because you’ve become part of the fabric of the web. Probably the next iteration is where people don’t even need to ask, because it’s so obvious. Maybe we’ll get there.

Anyway, the point of this post is mainly to say this: The interesting stuff, the stuff that will make you happy, is not the stuff that you’ll read in a press article or see on TV. It’s the simple good feeling of working on something interesting with good people. That’s it.

One thought on “The real reasons to found a startup

  1. Pingback: Failure is Not the Worst Thing That Could Happen to You | TimTomBlog

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