(Enjoy a freebie edition for the holidays)
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PSA: This issue of “The Inner Game of Startups” is free for everyone. If you like it, you can subscribe for $5/month to get each new episode every Friday. If you have questions or topics you’d like to see me write about, let me know!
This week’s newsletter is a day late.
I opted to write on Saturday instead of Friday. Friday was a bit too hectic, and I need some space and focus to write. I’m in a coffee shop this morning, which is sub-optimal for me, and I’m typing on a different laptop, so my fingers keep missing the keys and I’ve got to go back and fix stuff.
But don’t worry. Being the heroic dragon-slayer that I am, I will suffer these brutal conditions with nothing but my oat milk latte and Moby playlist to guide me. You shall have your newsletter!
What I’m going to cover
Competitors. How to deal with them?
Chickens and hatching.
Startups are not about creativity (and what they are about).
Every week, someone sends me a link to a competitor.
What we’re doing with Crash is pretty big and broad - helping people launch their careers - so a LOT of companies can reasonably be considered competitors.
There’s a steady stream of “Hey, did you see what this company is doing? See all this positive PR they got? See this big round of funding they closes? See everyone Tweeting about them? See how beautiful their homepage is? See how many company logos are on their site? See all the testimonials? See how slick the product is?”
Well, most of the time the links are shared without much commentary, but that’s what I hear in my head.
It seems like the days I come across new competitors are always days that are going really well and I’m feeling confident and optimistic about Crash. Then I get smacked across the face with some startup somewhere doing something better than we are.
At first it’s always kind of deflating. Damn. They did this really well. I wish our stuff looked this good. But that’s just the knee-jerk. Back in the day with Praxis, I’d see some new apprenticeship program pop up with a celebrity board of advisors and big press coverage and a nicer website and I’d feel like throwing in the towel. They’d beat us. Of course I didn’t surrender. Instead, I’d tell myself, “This is validation of our belief that there’s a real market gap here.” I’d remember that Praxis would either fail or succeed on it’s own merits, not the failure or success of others. I’d plow ahead.
Guess what? I saw probably 20 Praxis competitors come into the world much better than we did, and exit within a few years.
Turns out, even with the deck stacked early, you still have to overcome the same challenges. No big name VC can overcome distribution, sales, and scaling painpoints. If it’s a battle of sleekness, I’m probably never gonna win. If it’s a battle for grit and grind, you don’t want to face me.
These days the presence of competitors doesn’t rattle me like that. I get a little deflated for a minute realizing they’ve done something we should’ve. Then I get really excited just feeling the energy behind the space we’re competing in. I get jazzed by all the validation of the pain point and the fact that others see the same thing and are able to get a business going around it. The problem is big. The market is huge. These are good signs.
The next thought used to be about how I’d outlast all these comers and win, face bloodied like Rocky Balboa. Now I don’t think that way much. I don’t think about beating them. I think about how their existence grows the pie. I think about how they might enlarge the market we’re serving. I think about how we could serve them and help them grow. I think about how we might acquire them or hire their talent down the road. I think about win-wins.
In short, two things keep me sane in the face of new competitors who sometimes do things better than us:
I’ve been around too long and seen the pattern too many times to overreact. I know on the whole, competition is more validation than threat. I know they have no magic sauce to overcome hard work. I know they are more likely to grow the overall pie than to rob us of a slice. I have a solid grasp of reality.
I don’t pay much attention to competition at all. Honestly. If it’s an investor or team member or someone I know who sends me a link, I click and in scan the page out of courtesy. I often send a short thanks with my thoughts. But that’s it. Then I forget it. Whenever possible, I never even check out the page. This isn’t out of fear or denial (in the early Praxis days I might’ve ignored something for those reasons, but not now), but a practical understanding that my mental attention is scarce and I can get distracted. And I value being different. I don’t want to morph into an amalgamation of the competition. I want to create the whole damn category and come at the problem from left field. I’d rather keep working on what we’re doing than comparing it to what someone else is doing. I’d rather not win the game. I’d rather play a different game.
Chickens and hatchings
Everyone knows not to count chickens before they hatch. But I did anyway.
We had a big deal I’d been working on that was all but done. I was excited. I started updating projections and plans based on the deal getting done. Then it fell through last week. It was brutal. Back to the drawing board.
A few months ago, I had been pursuing several options around this deal, but I pretty much abandoned them all as one looked like a sure thing. I should’ve kept those other irons in the fire. Now I’m revving everything back up and trying to find another way to accomplish the goal.
It was one of those stupid lessons you have to learn even though you already know it. I just let up a little too much a little too early. Nothing comes easy in startups. Nothing. Nothing can be taken for granted. No money is real until the check clears.
Wow. That was a lot of metaphors in just a few paragraphs.
I’ve heard Mike Maples say part of a founder’s job is not only to believe when no one else does, but to believe even when s/he doesn’t believe.
I can confirm the necessity of this.
There are definitely times, especially early on, when I have had unshakable belief in the idea and the company. Belief that is borderline delusional or irrational. It’s that kind of crazy belief that’s needed to get things going.
But there are times when my belief isn’t very strong. Doubt creeps in. And it’s reasonable doubt. Sometimes there is wisdom in the doubt I can extract and apply. But the doubt is dangerous too. I have to kill it. I have to believe even when I don’t believe.
One of the ways I do this comes back to my sarcastic comment to open this newsletter, about slaying dragons. I imagine. I tell a story about what I’m doing. I weave the struggle into an epic conflict. I’m not just trying to figure out a business model, I’m trying to cross stormy seas and conquer monsters. I’m facing down a hell full of demons and piercing the darkness.
This kind of imagining is an indispensable tool. I’ve got to zoom out and take in and/or create a big, meaningful context within which I’m operating.
Startups are about death, not creativity
OK, this last section is gonna get a little weird. I’ve been reading some esoteric stuff and noticed how some of it applied to startups. We’ll see how it goes. But remember, it’s your fault because you subscribed to this newsletter.
Thought is death.
Starting a company is not a creative act, it is a destructive act. It is death.
In some ancient esoteric traditions, life and thought are juxtaposed. In some myths and histories, when humans became thinking creatures that’s when they became mortal and death entered the world.
Life is an unconscious process. Respiration, growth, and other biological processes just happen. They happen without individual agents consciously choosing them. Consciousness brings death. To consciously focus on something is to direct energy away from automatic, life giving processes and shift it to thought. Thought robs energy from the biological processes and shortens life. Some mystics say humans are the most sickly of creatures on earth because we are the most conscious. We direct more energy to thought, thereby leaving less for life.
To think a specific thought is to choose. Choice means opportunity cost. Putting energy into that one thought means everything else that energy could’ve done is given up. Something has to die for that thought to grow. Acting on the thought only raises the cost further.
So what does this weird idea that thought and life are in conflict have to do with startups?
I don’t think lack of startups results from lack of creativity. I think it results from too much creative life and not enough conscious death. Too many choices and not enough choosing.
I’ve talked to lots of people who have big changes they want to see in the world. They get excited about a cool startup they want to build. They had an epiphany through the creative, generative process. That’s the easy part. Everyone can think up a startup idea.
To make it more than just an idea requires death. You’ve got to exit the warm, life-expanding clouds of idealism and strip it down to smallest unit. What’s the one-sentence description? What’s the one problem you’ll solve? You’ve got to kill all the other things you could do and do the one.
To make a deck and a plan and get started, you have to kill of many markets and problems and products to get to the one that can launch. It’s death. There is nothing harder than taking your “Why” and reducing it to a “How” and then reducing it further to a “What”. Those who can’t ever get to the “How” stay in their heads. Those who can’t get to the “What” go into nonprofits or projects that are too vague to be sustainable as a business.
The process of death is repeated over and over in the life of a startup. I’ve talked about the death involved in starting Praxis, creating Crash, renaming Crash, splitting Crash and Praxis, etc. many times in this newsletter. Because I feel it in a very real way every day.
We’re still killing things off every day at Crash. We’re still trying to narrow down and make clear, concrete choices. Which means forgoing others. Which means the death of many possibilities.
If you can master clear thought and action, which means the death of boundless creativity, you can probably do a startup.
People do not lack the creativity to launch startups. They lack the ability to sacrifice most of those ideas so that just one can survive.
If you want to know whether you are prepared to start a company, ask whether you are prepared to die.
I told you it was kinda weird. But it resonates with me on such a deep level I had to share it. Startups are like birth and death all wrapped into one, over and over.
Enjoy your weekend
Thanks for sticking around. I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving, and I hope you’ve entered the Christmas season this weekend with some cliche activities, food, and music like I have!