Startups Ain’t Always Pretty (and that’s Normal)
Last night, as I was reflecting on a contentious debate we’d had during the day (technically about server migrations, actually about pent up interpersonal frustrations), and after a fleeting moment of panic, it occurred to me how common this kind of shit really is.
It’s easy to lionize people, to paint your heroes––in your mind––with the magical dust of immortality and––abetted by the echo chamber that is the web––forget their actual humanity. Humanity that is sometimes flawed, sometimes frail. When you compare your very real, not-so-adequate-today self to the built up, pedestalized image of someone else, you’ll always come up short.
Which brings me to Chris Dixon, the celebrity entrepreneur/VC. We entrepreneurs who cut their teeth on the east coast in this latest wave of startups have come to lionize the man and hold him up as something of an idol. The truth? Cool guy. Very smart. Excellent writer. Already built up one company and sold it. But the man’s still human. Strip away the marketing and he’s still playin’ the game, just like the rest of us.
His current venture, Hunch, hasn’t really taken off, despite having raised nearly $20mil in venture capital from the top names in the biz and having lined up an all star team of technical geniuses. His co-founder Caterina just bailed, or is in the process of maybe-kinda-sorta-not-really doing so. Business Insider says they had a personal falling out, but that’s not confirmed.
And Hunch, well, Hunch is cool and “interesting” from a technology perspective, but I haven’t quite figured out how it solves an actual problem or need. I think I used it once, maybe, 6 months ago. No one on my team uses it and no one I know actively uses or has talked about it. From all appearances, the product seems to be “a vitamin, not a painkiller,” and more of a feature than a product.
Not saying they’re doomed, but I am saying they’re not a clear success just yet. ‘Product-market fit’ is still an aspiration, not a reality.
Sound familiar, maybe like 99% of every startup you’ve ever met, no?
Now, I’m not saying this to knock Dixon or Hunch, but to point out a larger truth that I think is easy to overlook amidst all the adulation & hype: CELEBRITIES ARE HUMAN. COMPANIES––NO MATTER HOW ‘HOT’––ARE RUN BY HUMANS. Humans that can fuck up and piss each other off and fall flat on their face. Humans like us…just sometimes with more money or buzz or prestige.
As a founder, it’s easy to come up short when you compare yourself to an illusory ideal. But that’s not reality. No one has a perfect track record. Businesses are run by humans. A startup is a human institution. While a good CEO can hide the warts, the truth is rarely as pretty or elegant as the narrative pedaled to the press.
And so, when you’re in the struggle and you want to kill your co-founder(s) and you haven’t nailed product-market fit and you wonder why you ever thought you could succeed in the first place, remember: That’s what being the man in the arena is all about. This kind of shit is normal. Hell, not even the great Chris Dixon is immune.
Only in hindsight will people––yourself included––romanticize the struggle, say your success was always assured, and imbue the affair with shimmers of glory.