“The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.” - Oliver Wendell Holmes
I very intentionally used the word all in the title of this article. I’m bound to get people yelling, cursing or screaming about that word, but it turns out the clarifier immediately following it is designed to help.
I am proud to admit I am an unexceptional entrepreneur. Proud as they come in fact. Turns out there are some exceptional ones – folks that have been exceptions to the norms most entrepreneurs face. It’s an exception that Mark Zuckerberg really didn’t have to “fake it” because Facebook just started working when he turned it on at Harvard. I’m proud to say he’s an exception… which makes me unexceptional. Same with entrepreneurs who raise boatloads of money before ever even founding (ie. Color) – they are exceptional in that they don’t have to put in their own money.
We are all unexceptional entrepreneurs – except for those few exceptional ones (ie. the exceptions). When I speak with a newish entrepreneur, I often hear rebuttals back from my questions that say, “… well what about _____ who was able to do ______ without ______?” Yes, point to folks like Bill Gates or Marc Andreessen who were first-time founders who never worked at a startup or claim that the people behind HuffPo or LinkedIn ever had to fake it. Great. Yes, those are exceptions… if you shoot to be an exception, your life is going to be challenging.
Unless you are exceptional – you are probably going to be unexceptional and it turns out nearly everyone is.
As a result, I thought I’d list a few of the things all unexceptional entrepreneurs like myself do. I say all because if you don’t, you are most likely an exception and/or an exceptional entrepreneur. It’s like a Black Swan of entrepreneurship… yes they happen, but good luck forecasting that one.
All Unexceptional Entrepreneurs (in no particular order):
Fake it. At an event in Washington, DC in 2011, Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian got on stage and told the story about how he and his cofounder Steve had created dozens and dozens of fake users to “plant” comments on the MVP of a site they intended to make into the ‘Homepage of the Internet.’ Turned out, they had to fake it until they could make it. That’s sorta how life is with entrepreneurship – most times you don’t have anything until you finally have something. Personally, one of my favorite stories of “faking it” was our pre-pre-pre-launch of Zaarly at SxSW in 2011 – literally two weeks after we’d met at Startup Weekend. We were launching a two-sided marketplace without either side really existing… at a huge tech conference. Kinda frightening (particularly for anyone who knows the challenges of marketplaces). Our solution – we hired people off Craigslist to fulfill the supply side of our marketplace (ie., run errands, fix things, deliver stuff, hustle, etc.) So yes, our marketplace “worked” in that weekend and started to no longer require our hired workers – but really, it worked because we had to fake it first.
Call in favors. This is a characteristic that drives me batty about some people. I recall a specific example of a part-time, early stage entrepreneur who described to me a scenario that sounded like a perfect fit for partnering with the local newspaper. I asked if he had a connection there and he said, “Not personally, but my dad’s best friend is the publisher – but I want to do it on my own and save that chip.” Uh, duh. Call in that damn favor immediately son. You need every advantage you can get and if you need to ask your dad for a favor, you’d better damn well do it. This game is all about creating luck and calling in favors is how you do that. One of my favorite favor-calling stories was in those first weeks of Zaarly and my cofounder Bo called in a huge favor of his father-in-law Jerry – which had Jerry driving around Austin trying to beg, borrow or steal his way into a parking spot for the RV we’d reserved. Thank god for Jerry… but moreso thank god Bo wasn’t too afraid to call in a favor.
Get told no. I get told no… a lot. Trying to hire people, trying to raise money, trying to find partners, trying to recruit customers, etc. etc. Again, it may seem like the stars align for some people and things “just work”, but behind the scenes there are lots of missteps, doors slammed and ‘nos’ to be had. It’s the reality – realizing that is a great first step.
Really aren’t crushing it. I literally stopped reading TechCrunch because it made me feel like I was a failure. There are exceptional entrepreneurs who have great news and share it with the not-so-great news (Rand Fishkin of SEOMoz has some great posts that show the downsides of a failed financing). But most of us are like ducks on the pond – looked calm as can be, all while paddling like f-ing crazy beneath the water where no one can see. It’s the reality. Sara Lacy of PandoDaily came into our offices and said, “I assume you guys are like everyone else – some good, some bad, but lotta meh or not sure.” She’s right. Assume the TC posts are that some good and most everything else is bad or meh. You’ll only hear founders talk about those bad and meh points with other founders they trust.
Put in their own money. I’m not sure where this mentality comes from – maybe it is too much of the ‘crushing it’ attitude or something – but you absolutely will have to put in some of your own money. Maybe that’s six months without a salary and paying for servers, or maybe its some other time horizon. But you are most definitely the exception if you aren’t tightening the proverbial belt here. Our three founders went more than six months without a paycheck and putting expenses on personal credit cards – even though we’d raised money. That’s what it takes – save those exceptional folks.
Have a co-founder. Yes, listen, I get it – there are some wonderful examples of solo founders who are now billionaires. Congratulations to them. It most likely won’t be you. Maybe, but if I’m a betting man, I gotta say no. Honestly, I’m willing to go out on a limb and say the ratio of successful to failed startups with cofounders is much much higher than solo founder startups. In fact, YCombinator avoids solo founders like the plague. Turns out you need a support network, social pressure, someone who works hard for free, a peer and much more that cofounders offer. And even if you decide to “start” your business as a solo founder, if you aren’t looking for someone awesome to join you who might only join if they could be a co-founder, then you are only going to recruit B players. Cofounders create co-pressure on each other. It’s one of the reasons why Startup Weekend works – you participate as a team and push each other – even if just for a weekend. That same societal pressure and fear of disappointing others is a powerful motivator. So please get a cofounder. I don’t care that Jeff Bezos didn’t have one. I really don’t.
There are probably dozens more things that unexceptional entrepreneurs like me will do. Boy, I’d love if some of them weren’t the reality – it’d be great to do this without your own money or avoid saying we’re “crushing it” when it’s hard to know what that even means or if you could do this without the challenge of finding a really great co-founder. But I’m unexceptional – and odds are you are too.
Welcome to the club. It ain’t half-bad here.