'Startups take over your life' and other business surprises

We celebrate entrepreneurship. But most of the time, startups get no respect.
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer

When people think of business startups, there's an almost romantic aura to this perception -- a small team of dedicated people, working in barren quarters, led and inspired by an entrepreneur with a vision -- and a huge marketplace poised to shower money in their direction as soon as word gets out about their new product.

However, things don't quite work out that way in startup situations. Most people are skeptical about startups, and working spaces get too cramped for comfort. Paul Graham, tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist, provides some advice on the surprises that pop up during a company's startup phase. He contacted founders of companies he helped fund, asking what their greatest surprises as they moved their vision from dream to reality.

Here are some of the leading "surprises" Graham gathered from about 100 entrepreneurs:

Select cofounders carefully: "What people wished they'd paid more attention to when choosing cofounders was character and commitment, not ability.... You haven't seen someone's true colors unless you've worked with them on a startup."

Startups take over your life: "Running a startup is not like having a job or being a student, because it never stops. This is so foreign to most people's experience that they don't get it till it happens.... You enter a whole different way of life when it's your company vs. working for someone else's company."

Expect an emotional roller-coaster: "In a startup, things seem great one moment and hopeless the next. And by next, I mean a couple hours later....  How hard it is to keep everyone motivated during rough days or weeks, i.e. how low the lows can be."

There are lots of little details: "It's much more of a grind than glamorous. A timeslice selected at random would more likely find me tracking down a weird DLL loading bug, or tracking down a bug in the financial model Excel spreadsheet the night before a board meeting, rather than having brilliant flashes of strategic insight."

Be prepared to get no respect: "Outside the startup world, startup founders get no respect. Partly this is because the rest of the world just doesn't get startups, and partly it's yet another consequence of the fact that most good startup ideas seem 'bad.'"

Don't obsess over perfection: "Lots of founders mentioned how important it was to launch with the simplest possible thing. By this point everyone knows you should release fast and iterate. ...Build the absolute smallest thing that can be considered a complete application and ship it. Why do people take too long on the first version? Pride, mostly. They hate to release something that could be better. They worry what people will say about them. But you have to overcome this."

Don't obsess about competitors: "Companies that seemed like competitors and threats at first glance usually never were when you really looked at it. Even if they were operating in the same area, they had a different goal. One reason people overreact to competitors is that they overvalue ideas. If ideas really were the key, a competitor with the same idea would be a real threat. But it's usually execution that matters."

Deals fall through: "That's a constant of the startup world. Startups are powerless, and good startup ideas generally seem wrong. So everyone is nervous about closing deals with you, and you have no way to make them."

Graham also relates that another surprise startup entrepreneurs experienced is simply how fun the whole exercise can be. It can be quite energizing to be working on something that is challenging and creative, as opposed to being on someone else's payroll.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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