What You Know About Startups Is Wrong, book review: Puncturing the myths

VC and serial entrepreneur KP Reddy offers advice, anecdotes and common sense in this useful, if somewhat discursive, book.
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor

What You Know About Startups Is Wrong: How to Navigate Entrepreneurial Urban Legends That Threaten Your Relationships, Your Health, Your Finances, and Your Career • By KP Reddy • Lioncrest Publishing • 178 pages • ISBN 9781619618794 • $15/£10.75

Can anyone be an entrepreneur and create a successful startup? If your best idea is bed sheets you stick on with Velcro, or renting your dog out to lonely strangers, probably not. In fact, says Atlanta-based venture capitalist and serial entrepreneur KP Reddy, even with the right idea most people are doing startups wrong. If you're annoyed by VCs spouting off about how you can't expect to succeed without living on instant noodles and 'crunching' 80 hours a week, this somewhat rambling book of advice and anecdotes will be a welcome change.

In What You Know About Startups Is Wrong, Reddy pushes back on the startup myth that real commitment means overwork and no time off. It's certainly refreshing to hear someone maintain that your startup is not your child, and that you shouldn't put it ahead of your life and your family. "We've decided collectively as a culture that startups equal pain"..."Startup culture glorifies struggle and tenacity," says Reddy. Maybe it would be better to make a realistic evaluation of your opportunities and progress, because one of the first lessons any founder should learn is when to quit.

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After passing out in a low blood sugar diabetic crash on a plane, and realising that hanging on to his failing startup at all costs after the dotcom crash had cost him so many personal and professional relationships, Reddy accepted that the way he thought startups had to work wasn't just bad for his health: it was also bad for the company, because he was too stressed to make good management decisions.

Instead, he says, founders need to be well rounded, take time to stop and think, and even work on side projects for money as long as you're clear about how everything you do -- including answering emails and taking meetings -- contributes to your goal. A lot of this is self-awareness. Don't be so caught up in the idea of being an entrepreneur that you're still learning less than an intern after struggling to get your business off the ground for five years. Be realistic about how good the clothes-making robots you're building actually are: if they can only make flat things like sheets rather than complicated garments like jeans, say so: you're just as likely to impress people with your honesty as you are to lose orders you wouldn't be able to fulfil anyway, and you won't stress out your staff by having them work weekends on technology that isn't advanced enough for what you want to do.

Startup culture

Reddy tackles some of the problems of startup culture, including inexperienced founders making unreasonable demands of employees, sexual harassment, and the problems of having all your company events revolve around alcohol. Culture, he points out, shouldn't mean cults.

It's good to see these thorny issues tackled, and Reddy takes a very practical tone that will have readers nodding their heads in agreement rather than muttering about political correctness. Culture is about how everyone in the company treats one another, he says, suggesting that your sick leave policy is as important as whether people are passing around inappropriate photos of their sexual conquests at work. But implying that the causes are as simple as inexperienced leaders wanting to have things their own way, or to shake off the shackles of over-restrictive HR departments, misses many of the systemic issues that need to be tackled. Reddy is right to say that having a party culture is a failure by company leaders, but it's too simplistic to suggest that you can simply change a 'frat house' culture to one of acceptance.

Similarly, Reddy is clear on the importance of being a leader that people can trust enough to open up to, but rather thin on how to achieve that -- although there are some horror stories from his past of what not to do. His description of millennials is sincere but phrases like 'the participation-trophy generation' sound almost like a parody, when it's actually an attempt to celebrate having real conversations rather than making smalltalk, and allowing people to bring their authentic selves to work.

There's some useful advice on hiring and managing people who expect to be communicated with as peers, and who need leaders to show how the company is working on things they care about personally. Again, it's refreshing to hear the view that if an employee can't cope with a task then maybe it's the company's fault for letting them get in over their head, and not being encouraged to ask for help.

There are other useful nuggets scattered through this slim but discursive volume (which would benefit from better organisation): don't pitch investors between October and January (they're busy or away); don't have your quarter end over Christmas; do your sums on the impact of the pay cut you'll take by leaving a corporate job for a startup; look for people who say they'll do whatever it takes, but also ask for guidance on things they haven't done before (a combination he calls attitude and aptitude); and if you let employees work from home one day every week make it Wednesday rather than Friday in case it turns into a three-day weekend.

Much of this is common sense and shouldn't be worth documenting -- but it clearly is. What You Know About Startups Is Wrong is an easy read that's more useful than exciting, and it's a welcome change to see some of the unrealistic gloss taken off the startup mirage. But when it comes to implementing Reddy's advice, expect to need more help than this book provides.


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