When people think of startups, their minds often head to the extremes. On one end of the spectrum there's the image of a lone genius hacking away in a dorm room/garage/basement. On the other, there's a sprawling Silicon Valley campus where VC money rains down on companies with billion dollar valuations.
Here's the reality: most startups don't live in either of these worlds. They are somewhere in between developing their concept while burning through Aunt Ginny's seed investment and perfecting their pitch deck in the hopes of getting to a Series A round.
"Getting to A" has always been a difficult journey and it's only gotten more competitive in recent years. In 2008 one out of three startups reached their Series A round while today it's closer to one out of ten. Plus, what used to be one million dollar A-round investments are now in the seven- to ten-million-dollar range. With larger investments comes greater expectations regarding performance and proving your product-market fit. Showing your ability to scale from near zero revenue to, say, three million is not an easy task. It requires business development, partnerships, talent acquisition and so much more. And as expectations rise, fear becomes a bigger part of the equation-fear of failure, fear of living without a paycheck, of letting yourself and other people down.
Fear in many ways is actually an entrepreneurs best friend. I have always believed that comfort is the enemy of growth which means that the most successful entrepreneurs are uncomfortable all the time. There are of course ways to mitigate the fear, and accelerators like Dreamit offer resources that do just that. Mentors and a strong peer group can guide you on your way. They can motivate you and talk you off a ledge when you need it. Ultimately though you have to wake up every day and trudge forward into new territory, knowing that your choices and actions will undoubtedly take a toll on those close to you. And let's face it, if you're not dealing with something unfamiliar and a bit scary, then it's a likely sign that things aren't going well. So much of success in the startup world depends upon momentum that if things feel comfortable you may be slowing down -- and slowing down in this world is tantamount to dying.
More often than not, the difference between a real entrepreneur and a "wannabe" comes down to the ability to face and harness fear-to perpetually live in discomfort. This begs the question: is this an ability that can be taught? That question is part a larger debate we have all the time at Dreamit-whether or not entrepreneurship is something that can be learned. My gut tells me no.
Sure, there are a number of skills you can learn and pick up along the way. Experience will teach you to be a better listener and to avoid distractions. You will learn to adjust your expectations-goals will take longer to reach than first estimated. And the whole time your network will grow and improve. But ultimately I think what separates successful entrepreneurs from the rest of the pack is this: they're intrinsically wired to take risks, journey into the unknown and conquer fear. The sleepless nights, the difficult conversations, the constant physical and mental strain may seem like masochism to most people, but it's what makes a born entrepreneur thrive.
I used to give a talk where I likened the entrepreneurial journey to assembling a pirate ship-starting with a wild-eyed captain equipped with nothing more than a map and a promise of hidden treasure. The captain gathers a motley crew with a shared desire and they all set sail. Of course there are pitfalls (and danger!) along the way. Some men fall overboard; some are forced. But as long as everyone shares the same mission and the captain keeps them on course. Keep in mind, it's still a mystery what lies for them under the big X that marks "the spot"-only the journey is for certain. It will be long, tough and wrought with fear, but true entrepreneurs wouldn't have it any other way.