Entrepreneurship is one of the things that makes this moment in history really special — we’re at a point in time where technology is disrupting everything we know about the world and, as a group, the entrepreneurs who are building that technology right now are going to leave a mark our great-grandchildren will learn about in school. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. But should you be one of those entrepreneurs, in the true sense of someone who starts a brand new company from zero? It’s a personal choice, of course, but how should you even start to frame that question to yourself? I think it’s important to be really honest and ask yourself “Why do I want to do this?”. It’s going to be a struggle with daily peaks and valleys, so you need to have your answer to that question really honestly defined.
The obvious disclaimer here is that I’ve never started a company from scratch myself. I have been fortunate enough to be there for the journey from 3-4 people up to 150 (where TC is now) and watch a founder from a few feet away along the whole way. And I’ve thought a lot about whether I want to start a company from zero myself one day, either as my next step or sometime down the line. From all of that, I keep coming back to these four potential reasons, at least for my own evaluation. Not all of these reasons are necessarily good reasons, by the way, but it’s really your call which of these are enough for you.
Those are four possible reasons to start a company. It’s up to each of us to decide which of these is good enough.
When we were just getting started at Trunk Club, we needed to validate our model and do it fast. That meant getting customers and revenue in the door one way or another. We didn’t have any salespeople or marketing, or much of a product, for that matter. Brian, our CEO, gave me a challenge — find 10 customers in my first week and convince them to buy clothes from us.
I fancied myself a pretty smart, scrappy guy at the time — but I was really uncomfortable selling. Most smart, ambitious people want their work to speak for itself, rather than having to “ask for favors”, but the early stages of entrepreneurship are a lot about convincing other people to take a risk on you and help the cause. Whether it’s early customer acquisition, fundraising, or recruiting, you can’t succeed if you don’t learn how to put yourself out there and ask for help.
I took Brian’s challenge and reached out to about 75 potential customers in my network. I told them I wanted their help getting our company off the ground. Many of them never responded to my emails and voicemails (ouch). A handful of them might have been annoyed at me (oh well). But within a few days, I had leads on about 20 customers that became an important part of our revenue that first quarter.
Selling and asking for help aren’t as sexy and talked about as a lot of what you hear about in startup blogs, but I’d argue they’re the most important part of building a company (thanks Brian). Recently, I found myself reaching out to an acquaintance who I thought could connect me with a potential designer recruit. Instead of feeling shy about it, I was honest: “We need help - would really appreciate anything you can do”. He made the connection. I’m glad I asked.
In some sense, everyone is a bolt-on engineer. Nobody rolls out their own fab and builds up from raw silicon; we all reuse some component or another, even if it’s a language runtime, a web framework like Django or Rails, a protocol like Paxos, a fast database, or a library, say for numerical analysis or even natural language processing. Even CS theoreticians are, in a sense, reusing techniques from math. Everybody stands on the shoulders of the giants that came before them, and all that.
But it’s critical to keep tabs on the ratio known as “glue versus thought.” Sure, both imply progress and both are necessary. But the former is eminently mundane, replaceable, and outsource-able. The latter is typically what gives a company its edge, what is generally regarded as a competitive advantage.
The key point here is that, while our tools and foundations get more sophisticated every day, our standard for what constitutes real IP has to rise exponentially with them. We don’t have to know how a motherboard works to build amazing software anymore, so what new ambition can we push ourselves to instead?
When I first started teaching myself to program a couple years ago, I felt like I was cheating. I had so many tools, frameworks, and gems available to me that engineers just a few years ago had to build from scratch. As I built my first Rails application, I had the option of building an authentication/login experience myself (which meant learning how to encrypt passwords and handle sessions) or just using a popular Ruby gem that someone else had made to handle it just as well. I did the former once for learning, but I probably won’t ever bother again. Mobile developers might have the most abstraction available to them of anyone, since iOS and Android are rich frameworks with lots of built-in functionality.
I’d argue there’s nothing bad about standing on the shoulders of giants past. There’s nothing macho about re-solving a problem someone has already solved, so go ahead and use that Ruby gem if it does the job for you. The real question then becomes: What new technology are you giving back to the world? What recipe did you invent from the ingredients you had available to you? It’s an exciting challenge.