Making the decision to start a business is just the beginning. Along with all the actual work you have to do (which I’ll write about later this week), there are other early hurdles, some of them mental, to jump. Here are four:
1) Telling other people. For me, this one was tough. I had worked with the people at my company for almost 8 years, and many of them were like a second family. But telling them was nothing compared to telling my real family. Breaking the news to my parents that I was thinking of quitting my job was difficult, but they were supportive. Both of my parents were elementary school teachers, my dad taught at the same school, the same classroom and grade, for more than 30 years before he retired. He told me that doing something that I loved was incredibly important because I will spend too much of my life working to not love what I’m doing. Good advice, I thought.
But telling them that I was starting a company – and an Internet company that starts other companies – was a whole different story. My mom’s response: “Thank God Chris has a job.” The real issue, though, was that they didn’t (and probably still don’t really) understand what it is that I do. This is not surprising because very few people understand what I do. But I knew for sure that they were both on my side when I went home for a visit at Thanksgiving, and my mom had print-outs of my Web sites (she actually printed copies of the sites on her color printer) propped up on her hutch in the dining room. Adorable.
“My mother and father thought I had lost my mind, because I had this great job at Xerox, a nice big office overlooking the whole Bay Area. They said, ‘What are you doing?'” – Charles Geschke, cofounder, Adobe Systems
“[I had to tell my parents that I wasn’t finishing school], but what was actually harder was having to go to the president of the university and ask for a leave of absence. I had never met him before. It was quite interesting because he apologized for having to try to disuade me from it. After he finished his speech, he wished me the best of luck and shook my hand with a big smile. I rememberd that, and ironically, 20 years later he’s one of RIM’s board members.” – Mike Lazaridis, cofounder, Research In Motion
“My parents thought I was pretty much over the top because I had this very prestigious job at the Federal Reserve Bank and went to work every day from my apartment to this beautiful bank and got promoted and made a bunch of money for my age. Why would I quit? It was very hard to communicate to people who weren’t in the very small software industry what you were doing. People didn’t question you; they couldn’t even converse with you. At Thanksgiving: ‘What do you do again?…OK, thanks, that sounds really interesting.’ …People didn’t quit their jobs and start these companies. Although once you become an entrepreneur, it’s sort of like becoming an alien. You notice there are other aliens!” – Ann Winblad, cofounder, Open Systems
2) Having faith that it’s going to work. You have to believe that your idea is going to work before you decide to start the company, but continuing to have faith in your vision is something that you have to choose to do every day. For me, it’s hard when I read articles about how many small businesses fail because I tend to make decisions based on probability and best-case scenerios. So the probability is (based on the stats) that my business will fail. But I have to have faith, I have to decide every day that I will beat the odds, that my company will not become a statistic. That I will succeed. The good thing for me is that my business model has failure built in, which is fantastic, because I’m already planning to fail. I’m starting a number of things at the same time with the full knowledge that some will not succeed. But the trick is to hold onto the faith that some of them will succeed.
“It took a lot of faith. You call it vision, but it’s a combination of vision and faith that 1) it’s going to happen someday, and 2) it has value, and 3) you can actually accomplish it in an economic way and promote it so that you can fund the development and growth of the business. That’s pretty tricky stuff.” – Mike Lazaridis, cofounder, Research In Motion
3) Embracing the uncertainty. When you start a business, you may be trying to hold onto faith that it will be a success, but you don’t really know that it will be. Along with that, you don’t always know where you’re next client will come from. Or employee. Or dollar. So you have to come to a point of accepting the not knowing, embracing the uncertainty. For me, it’s kind of a thrill to be working this all out as I go because I have come to believe that no matter what I face, I’ll figure it out. It might not be today or tomorrow, but eventually, I’ll either determine a way to get around the issue, find someone to help me with it, or overcome it in some way.
“Part of the excitement was just seeing how the world would respond. I kind of like uncertainty to some extent, because it’s a little bit of suspense and excitement and adventure, almost, right? And you can learn a lot even if things don’t work out. But not everyone likes adventure. A lot of people seem to be against uncertainty, actually. In all areas of life.” – Paul Buchheit, creator, Gmail
4) Remembering that there are pros and cons. I got married fairly recently (May 2006) and for at least a year following that event, almost everytime I saw someone I hadn’t seen in awhile, they would ask, “How’s married life treating you?” That exact question. Since starting a business, the question has morphed to, “How’s the business coming along?” I love that people ask about both my marriage and my business, but the truth of the matter is that with both, there are pros and cons. The trick is making sure that there are more pros than cons.
For the first few months after starting the business, I had a really hard time with the isolation of working at home, alone, with no one else around to talk to all day or who fully understood what I was doing. I tried a lot of things to overcome this, and the thing that ended up working the best was going to Panera Bread and using their free wi-fi. At least there I was around people, and the din from the conversations helped me feel not-quite-so-alone. Lately, that con has turned into more of a positive. I love being able to set my own schedule and to work at my own pace, and I’m able to get things done faster than ever. The good can become bad and the bad can become good in the blink of an eye – the key is remembering that, and working constantly to turn the negatives positive.
“Startups are just so amazingly fun; they are so amazingly stressful. Whether you are an engineer or whether you are a founder, at least for me, it takes every emotion you’ve got and multiplies it 100-fold. Higher highs, lower lows than any other work experience. A startup is all-encompassing, so do it when you are young and when you don’t have a family because you’ll lose it all.” – Mark Fletcher, founder, Bloglines
“It’s a combination of sudden freedom to run things as you please and crushing responsibility in which you know you have to do certain things in a certain way at a certain time. That eradicates all of that freedom.” – Joshua Schachter, founder, del.icio.us
Tomorrow, I’ll continue this series with a discussion of the financial issues that go into a start-up.
All of the quotes in this article are from the wonderful book Founders at Work: Stories of Startup’s Early Days, by Jessica Livingston.