Another day, more e-mails.
This time, I received a common e-mail with a question on startup advice.
And I refused to help.
The person seeking advice was doing what he thought he should be doing based off advice he had heard... but it’s bad advice, and I’m tired of bad advice and disrespect of the startup context.
In his e-mail, he briefly explained what he was trying to do, and he included this line:
“There are other details that for confidentiality sake I will leave out at this time (no offense).”
For “confidentiality sake?”
Listen, I get it.
Some people live in fear.
Some people believe they need to protect their startup ideas.
Some people want control.
Often, the above mindset is what is taught to us, either by influencers, advisors, or society.
It’s neither bad, nor good, it simply is.
And what is can stunt growth.
This truth I am about to share is not about you, it is about your contribution to humanity.
In short, “confidentiality sake” disrespects the context of a startup.
NDA’s disrespect the context of a startup.
Secrets disrespect the context of a startup.
“Stealth mode” disrespects the context of a startup.
First, let’s define what a startup is.
Paul Graham, a thought leader in the startup world, said a startup is “a company designed to grow fast.”
Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, said “a startup is a human institution designed to deliver a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.”
Steve Blank, the grandfather of the lean startup movement, said “a startup is a scalable startup in Silicon Valley.”
Dictionary.com says a startup is “the act or fact of starting something; a setting in motion.”
Back in December of 2013, I thought a startup was simply a business starting up.
The problem with these definitions is they describe a startup as a thing.
But a startup is more than that.
And what a startup is needs to be respected.
Let’s stop talking about it as a thing. Let's start talking about the thing behind the thing.
Let’s talk about the mindset. The startup state of mind.
Too many people disrespect the startup mindset.
After all, a startup is executed by a founder with a mindset (helpful or not).
Well, what’s the mindset?
I’m glad you asked.
The startup mindset is about vulnerability.
Yes, allow me to explain.
Let’s stop thinking about startup ideas and start thinking about the startup context.
Brené Brown, a vulnerability researcher, defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.
Is there uncertainty in startups? CHECK.
Is there risk in startups? CHECK.
Is there emotional exposure in startups? CHECK.
Think about it... the simple act of creating something and putting it into the world is a vulnerable act.
Brené Brown would also say that vulnerability is the foundation of change, creativity, and innovation.
Do startups embrace change? Yes. Startups who don’t embrace change and pivot don’t stand the test of time.
Do startups embrace creativity? Yes. Creativity is connecting the dots together in a unique way (eg. offering/value add).
Do startups embrace innovation? Yes, many do. Sometimes, that's why a startup is born.
The startup context is about a mindset that is rooted in vulnerability.
And guess what the opposite of vulnerable is?
Closed, guarded, protected, safe, secure.
Now, let me ask, does a startup sound anything like this?
If a startup is closed (and not evolving), how is it supposed to thrive?
If a startup is guarded and protected, how is it supposed to pivot and learn?
If a startup is safe... wait, a startup is not the safe thing to do.
If a startup is secure... wait, a startup is not secure!
You still with me? Good.
Another way of saying this...
The opposite of vulnerability is ego.
To keep things simple, let’s say ego is the root of unhealthy balance of pride, self-denial, and self-importance.
(Also, the ego is formed for specific reasons. Someone who grew up fighting in a rough family has a reason to be guarded. I’m not concerned about the past although I value understanding how it has affected the present and more importantly, how it affects the future.)
I want to be clear, ego is different than confidence.
Confidence says "I'm valuable."
Ego says, "I'm invaluable." (Source 99u)
Confidence listens to feedback and either accepts or rejects.
Ego is easily offended (and often takes things personal).
Confidence trusts with boundaries.
Ego is consumed by fear.
Confidence is learning from everyone (open-minded).
Ego is better than everyone (closed-minded, nothing to learn).
If the opposite of vulnerable is closed, guarded, protected, safe, and secure, then the root of all of these things is ego.
Ego is something we all have to different degrees.
When you disrespect the context of your startup, you give in to ego.
You give in to being guarded and closed-minded with your idea.
You give in to confidentiality, NDAs, and stealth mode.
You give in to unhealthy pride, self-denial, and self-importance.
You give up objective clarity to see what you want to see because you’re always right.
Ok, I think you get my point by now.
Moral of the story: Ego does not build great startups that stand the test of time. Ego disrespects startup context.
Ego is also responsible for fear. Think about it: guarded, close-minded, unhealthy pride, self-denial, self-importance, confidentiality, NDAs, stealth mode are all rooted in fear (usually).
Fear of being vulnerable.
Fear of being wrong.
Fear of the unknown.
Fear of the future.
Fear of being less important.
Fear of getting an idea stolen.
Fear of failure.
Vulnerability is a muscle. Work it.
Vulnerability is experimentation without fear.
Vulnerability is trusting that things will be ok.
Vulnerability is listening and learning from customers.
In case I’m not convincing enough, let’s discuss the 20 top reasons startups fail (from research on 101 startup post-mortems by CB Insights):
1. “No Market Need”
How do you build something that the market doesn’t need?
Use your ego. Guard your idea. Don’t tell anyone. Force everyone to sign NDAs and prevent valuable feedback. Don’t validate the idea against the market. Spend years perfecting a product that must be perfect (because, after all, you can’t identify with anything less than perfect, right Mr. Ego?)
How do you prevent building something that the market does not want?
Embrace vulnerability. Trust. Tell everyone. Constantly get feedback. If you get enough validation from talking with the intended audience, build a very basic version of what will solve the problem (often referred to as a minimum viable product). With that, learn, iterate, learn, iterate, and pivot as needed. You are not your startup.
2. “Ran Out Of Cash”
How do you run out of cash?
Use your ego. Be in self-denial. Don’t ask for help. Or, ask for help from the wrong people. Don’t ask questions because you know it all. Don’t track the appropriate metrics and don’t respect your runway. Don’t be open to new ideas.
How do you avoid running out of cash?
Embrace vulnerability. Accept that you don’t know it all. Find the right mentors. Respect the metrics. Respect the runway. Spend wisely, cash is finite. Ask questions if unsure. Ask more questions. Expose yourself when things are tough. Be open to help. Be open to advice.
3. “Not The Right Team”
How do you build the wrong team?
Use your ego. You know best, so who cares about a second opinion when hiring? No need to learn about hiring, because you already know that! You can do anything! Who cares about hiring the right type of person for your startup, hire the person with the MBA! They paid for that expensive education! (Nothing against MBAs...) Or, hire that cheap college student who doesn’t know their worth because you can do most things yourself, anyway.
How do you avoid building the wrong team?
Embrace vulnerability. Spend time learning. Accept that there are other ways to hire. Research on how to hire for a startup. Research some more. Ask a mentor. Ask another mentor. Ask another. When you embrace vulnerability, you will attract a different type of person. You will see new things in different people because you’re open to learning from them.
I could continue, but I think you see my point.
If you want to be a great founder, never blame the startup.
The ball is always in your court.
It is never your startups fault, it’s never a bad idea, it’s always you.
Humans are the root of startups. Period.
Oh, and a few disclaimers...
I get it, it’s not black and white.
I get it, buying into the hype and getting sucked into an idea is powerful (been there).
I get it, even if you do everything right, sometimes that’s not enough.
I’m not here to lay down a picture perfect roadmap (whatever that means). I’m here to provide clarity so you can take an honest look at yourself and adapt accordingly if you want a (successful) startup to be your legacy.
You are limited only by what you cannot see.
(And for the record, I can see these things because I’ve tried to fight it)
7 Ways to Respect Your Startup Context
Embrace vulnerability.Once again, vulnerability is risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure. Vulnerability is the foundation of creativity, change, and innovation. Understand that the success of your startup is not associated with your identity. If you fail, or make a mistake, move on. Your story is your story, not your life.
Trust.Trust that no one will steal your idea (and if they do, then accept that competition is part of the game... be better). Trust that if a user finds a bug, they’ll appreciate you more for fixing it quickly. Trust that you are capable of making it work, pivots and all.
Keep learning.Sales folk say “always be closing.” I side with, “Always be learning.” Everything is a learning opportunity. Everything. Anger and frustration aren’t necessary if everything is experienced as a learning opportunity. When you ask someone for their opinion, ask them for candid feedback. You want the truth. Give people permission to tell you the truth.
Focus on refining instinct.Startups are a game of mastering your psychology. Emotions, leading, beliefs, and all. Everything is a learning opportunity to refine instinct. Instinct is a muscle. Learn to listen within and refine your foundation.
Never forget your why.Know why you’re doing this. Got it? Great, ask yourself why again. Then again. Then again. Know the deepest why, because if you don’t reveal it now, revealing it later could be disastrous.
Manage your energy.Startups can be a roller coaster of emotions. Stress. Uncertainty. Anxiety. Understand this, respect it, and implement routines to manage your energy. It's part of the game.
Create momentum.Startups are a game of momentum. From the moment an idea hits your head, to the conversations you have with people, to your first customer, to your first hire. Respect the momentum, create it, and value every milestone. Celebrate accordingly.
The more you understand your psychology, the more you will navigate it and refine it better.
When you respect the startup context, you're open to creating the momentum you need for growth.
This is how you respect the context of your startup.
PS. Remember that startup founder who initially didn't share for "confidentiality's sake"? He ended up sharing. I ended up helping.