Inside the infrared cedar sauna at Epic Entrepreneur House in San Diego, aspiring startup moguls can strip down to their core assets, generate a little sweat equity, and, finally, focus. At Epic, you see, nearly all distractions (friction, in productivity hackers' parlance) have been removed. There's no commute, because this is their home. The living room has standing desks; dry-erase boards line the walls from the kitchen to the family room. Friends come to them, lured by prearranged social events; an in-house chef prepares all meals. At Epic, one can ideate a vision for industry disruption while staying totally undisrupted. It's enough to make you wonder: If the founders of yore--Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, say--had started their companies here instead of in some stupid garage, what might they have achieved?
This question is more serious than it appears. Founders can now outsource whatever they need: coffee delivery, code development, corporate finance. The treacherous, lonely road they once trod is now paved, lit, and dotted with helpful services and guides. Websites explain how to source products, find talent, and raise money from VCs (and what to wear when pitching). Software and apps automate every task from invoicing to IT. Entrepreneurship is no longer a solitary ordeal--an industrial complex is making it easier.
"Today, you can start a business as one person, with no development experience, and scale it to a million dollars a year," says Andy Bilinsky, co-founder of online prescription-eyeglass-lens seller Lensabl, which has raised $6.5 million and employs 14. Bilinsky outsourced practically everything as he built the company, and still does, like benefits and payroll to Gusto and accounting and CFO duties to Full Stack Finance.
It's tempting to offload such supplemental tasks. Speed is everything in business; whatever advantage you don't use, your competitors will. A counterargument, espoused by salty veterans, masochists, and those fixated on how an oyster turns a grain of sand into a pearl, is just as simple: Friction is essential.
"I don't think there are shortcuts," says Gary Hirshberg, founder of Stonyfield Farm. He cites moments when his tough choices led to smart business strategy--like focusing on organic dairy products early on, rather than expanding into a wide variety of healthy foods. "You get better when you're hungry," he asserts. "The lion that is desperate for that meal is going to be a lot more focused and smarter than the one that isn't worried."
This view isn't lost on today's better-nourished founders. Since starting the direct-to-consumer pet accessories business Wild One in early 2018, Minali Chatani and her co-founders have been helped by Very Great, an incubator that provides them with funding, office space, HR and finance departments, and access to a 15-person team of photographers and designers. Chatani says this has given Wild One a head start on product development, marketing, and distribution--and allowed it to launch with a splash at a dog-friendly pop-up store in Lower Manhattan with free coffee, beer, and wine. Wild One's leashes and pink poop-bag totes landed in Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom in its first year. "There's this weird sense of guilt: Did I not do it from the beginning?" says Chatani. "As someone who feels so strongly about being an entrepreneur, I ask myself: Does this discount my level of grit and skill and talent?"
Entrepreneurs who started up in the (comparatively) hardscrabble days of the early aughts say they don't begrudge today's founders perks they didn't have. "All businesses still face adversity," says Noah Glass, who founded his e-commerce company, Olo, in the pre- WeWorkian days of 2005. "We had ridiculous tribulations finding a place to work and configuring the email servers." But easier launches only defer the big challenges. "You still have to get customers, get them to pay you, and live up to their high expectations." Building a thriving business still means summiting Everest, even if getting to base camp is far easier now.
But that base camp--the ecosystem for early-stage startup funding--is much more crowded today, and early-stage companies have all begun to look alike, muses Ellie Wheeler, a partner at Greycroft, the New York City venture capital firm--as if they were building companies out of Legos and following the same set of instructions.
"We got a summer intern from Harvard Business School this year," she recounts, "and her comment was, 'Every deck is pretty formulaic. This is the problem we're solving, this is why we're the right people to solve it, this is why it's a big enough problem to solve, this is why we should solve it right now, and here's our momentum so far.' " Wheeler pauses. "Then there is the financial model: Every company has this uncanny ability to hit around $100 million in year five."
Trevor Jensen, the CEO of Bullibone, which sells dog toys at 8,000 locations across the U.S., is one of the six residents of Epic Entrepreneur House. He argues that living there generates its own pressures and friction--a more useful kind. The founders spur one another on, like at the weekly Monday Mastermind dinners, where they recount their progress.
"Since moving in, our business is taking off. A big reason is the support system here," says Jensen, meaning his roommates, who "throw so much fuel on your business from every angle." That sauna? He can't get there much. And when he does, it's only to listen to a podcast, decompress, and briefly escape the heat in the rest of the house.