The reality checkers were out in force yesterday. The New York Times ran an article about the lottery-esque economics of app development, focusing on a couple who earned less than $5,000 from eight apps that cost them $200,000 in lost income and savings to create. On the blog Both Sides of the Table, entrepreneur-turned-VC Mark Suster posted "Entrepreneurshit. The Truth About Building Startups." Spoiler alert: launching a business is the financial and emotional equivalent of water-boarding and no more certain to produce good results.
I experienced the gold-in-them-thar-hills ethos last spring while public-transiting around San Francisco with an aspiring app developer. To an East Coast salarywoman like myself, it was a world both exotic and quixotic--all those young, vital, creative people in coffee shops and office spaces over coffee shops conversing animatedly in tribal shorthand. "Gowalla! Instagram!" "Path!" Everything was a potential gamechanger. Everything was going to make them rich. I would have advised them to read Michael Porter's seminal book "Competitive Strategy," but it's not available on Kindle so what were the chances?
Suster sees such "wantrapreneurs" not as delusional but as naïve, and I'm sure he's right. He blames the "tech press" for perpetuating the myth of riches and glamour. (To be clear, Inc. is not the tech press. While we do serve up the sweet decadence of success, we balance it with the spinach of penury and despair.) But I don't think the big shocker for most people is the prospect of disappointment or outright failure. In the 15 years I've been interviewing entrepreneurs I've met very few who expressed no doubts that they would succeed or underestimated how much hard work was involved. (Actually, quite a few underestimate how much hard work is involved. But that's only because most people's hard work meter is calibrated to 10 and entrepreneurship goes to 11.)
What first-time entrepreneurs learn--painfully, over time--is how start-ups require you to be at once hugely selfish and hugely selfless. This is the paradox that Suster gets at in two bullet-pointed lists. The first relates to the promises the entrepreneur must make to potential employees, customers, and investors to persuade them to sign up based on not-one-whole-hell-of-a-lot. If the entrepreneur's confidence in his idea is misplaced (or he just screws it up) then those promises become, in essence, lies. That sounds harsh. Often the entrepreneur sincerely believes he will be able to deliver that secure job or that groundbreaking product or that return on investment. I call them lies because they involve a misrepresentation of the odds or of the practical realities underpinning the entrepreneur's misplaced confidence. I don't think many aspiring entrepreneurs want to see themselves as liars.
But never mind the word. Even if all the entrepreneur does is innocently mislead, the result is the same. Other people lose money. They miss opportunities. They believe and they trust and as a result their lives are made measurably worse. To have a chance at success, the entrepreneur must be willing to sacrifice others, including friends and family. People who are in it for love. To do that, he has to be selfish. Suster tells the story of an employee at his first company who asked him if he should buy a house. At the time, the company had just six months' cash in the bank. Suster was pretty sure another round was in the offing, but he wasn't "sure, sure." He doesn't say what he told the employee. I would guess he advised him to buy the house, and it turned out, phew, that that was sound advice. That would probably have been the smart choice and possibly the only choice. It would not have been the kind choice.
Suster's other list is about what he calls "finding your inner self confidence." It cites all those burdens entrepreneurs take upon themselves because no one else can or should bear them. Hiding their fears so they don't scare employees. Sacrificing every moment of leisure. Talking investors down from ledges. Internalizing all the stress and doubt. Oscar Wilde's novel The Portrait of Dorian Gray is about a man who remains outwardly healthy and virtuous while his image in a painting grows increasingly aged and grotesque, reflecting the truth of his dissolute ways. In a sense, entrepreneurs must be both themselves and their own portraits: outwardly assured, inwardly ravaged. It's hard. It's lonely. And it's necessary.
Of course both selfishness and selflessness are only temporary means to an end. If the company works, the entrepreneur can generously reward all those people who naively, endearingly trusted him. Protected by a personal track record and conceptual proof of concept, he can start sharing his worries and some of the hard leadership work with others. If the company doesn't work out, at least he will have learned something about himself.
Suster knows exactly what it's like to be an entrepreneur. Still, he says he would love to be back in the game. That attitude is shared by thousands of serial founders who run the marathon, chug some Gatorade, and head back to the starting line. Entrepreneurs don't have to be the bravest or smartest or most persistent people in the room. They have to be the most psychically tough.