Ryan Waggoner: Maybe Startups Are So Hard Because We’re Doing Them Wrong

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Founder Story, Funding, skmurphy

This is reposted excerpt from a sequence of  Christmas Day Hackers news comments made by Ryan Waggoner ( http://news.ycombinator.com/user?id=ryanwaggoner ) hyperlinks added for context. The initial comment triggered an extended conversation with Paul Graham and others that makes for interesting reading. I agree with Ryan’s perspective and didn’t want it see lost in the dusty archives of Hacker News.

In 2009 I started a company with another guy, and I used to read articles like this, about how startups are so very difficult, and how you have to put everything on the line, your health, your wealth, your relationships, everything. It’s a very common theme in startup-land, and I constantly hear from founders who sacrificed their marriages, worked 19 hour days, slept under their desks, and racked up tens of thousands in credit card debt, all to make their dream a reality. The message is very clear: you have to be willing to do anything to succeed. Articles like this fed my ego, and made me feel like I was part of an elite cadre of founders.

Then my startup  failed, leaving myself and my cofounder with tens of thousands in debt and a pretty rough mess to clean up.

In the meantime, a good friend of mine who started a little project on the side slowly grew it over a period of a couple years into something that supports his family very well and has a good shot at doing millions in revenue within the next 5-10 years. And I don’t think he’s been very stressed while doing it. He loves what he does, has tons of time for his family, etc. The cynical among us might term this a “lifestyle business” and they’d be right. But I don’t think that bothers him and I can’t say I blame him.

There’s this really ugly side of the startup world that drives founders to completely unreasonable levels in pursuit of fast wealth creation, and it comes as a result of two factors: founders are naturally ambitious, driven people, and investors are in a hit-driven business. So the result is that investors naturally gravitate towards founders who either hit a billion dollars in a few years, or die trying (sometimes literally), and then investors and founders both are incentivized to craft this story that they only way to win is to win big, fast, and with all your chips on the line.

And these things become self-reinforcing, so you have investors talking about how the real reason startups are so valuable is that founders can work so hard that they accomplish a career’s worth of work in just a few years. The message is clear: you need to work 90 hours a week and either be the next Dropbox or flame out. And for the model most investors work under, that’s the only way they really make money.

But the more I look around, the more I wonder if there’s really much correlation between blowing your life up and startup success. Yes, you hear a lot of successful founders talking about how they killed themselves to get there. But thanks to survivorship bias, you don’t hear from all the ones who risked everything, turned their lives and relationships and health upside down, and then lost. And increasingly, I’m seeing a lot of examples of very successful founders who definitely work hard, but keep an eye on themselves, their health, their relationships, etc. and have lines they’re just not willing to cross. 37signals is the classic example here, but there are scores of others, many of them right here on HN. The key seems to be patience and humility, two things a lot of 20-something founders (including myself) have in very short supply

Maybe startups are so hard because we’re doing them wrong.


Building a sustainable growing business does not preclude seeking investment. It allows you to develop a business plan predicated on achievable growth that merits investment. Or you can continue to run a business that can support your family.

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