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

Ryan Waggoner wonders if the popularized approach to startups is wrong. Instead of putting health and relationships at risk, try patience and humility.

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

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.

Ryan Waggoner: Maybe Startups Are So Hard Because We're Doing Them WrongIn 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.

Survivorship Bias

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.

Hard Work is Required, But All Consuming Work is Not

I’m not talking about working hard at all; I think success pretty much always requires hard work of some kind. My friend definitely worked hard to get his business up and running and to the point where it supports him.

I’m talking about the idea that you have to work so hard that it threatens or consumes everything else in your life. And no one claims that doing that is sufficient, but a lot of people claim it’s necessary.

It probably is necessary if the plan is to hit a billion-dollar exit in a few years. I just think that path entails a lot of extra risk that investors overwhelmingly benefit from, and founders end up paying for in the event that things go south. And sadly, I feel that a lot of investors essentially exploit young founders who don’t know enough yet to know that they’re paying a very high price for a 1/10000 chance at a grand slam (making $20m in 2-5 years), when they’d be better off in almost every way by going for the 1/10 or 1/100 base hit (making $2m in 5-10 years).

As anyone who does relationship or health counseling can tell you, they’re very closely linked. Financial problems destroy more marriages than any other single issue, and the stress of a bankruptcy is comparable to that of the death of a family member. Health and wealth are also closely linked. So it’s not as easy to separate these issues as you might think.

SKMurphy Take

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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Image Credit: Steven King “Some Thoughts on Product Market Fit

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