Do you know how easy it is to start a business?
I used to fawn over myself for having started businesses in the past. Everyone thinks starting a business is hard. But the truth is that starting a business is not that hard. Starting a business is easy; starting the right business is hard. You could start most businesses by choosing an idea out of a hat, filling out a bit of paperwork, and sending out a press release (bingo! you've started).
The challenge isn't starting a business; it's starting a business that will give you something back. It's running a company that won't suck the life out of you. It's building a product or service that people love and pay you money for.
Have you ever had a crush on someone? You experience powerful romantic feelings, and day dream about spending your life with that person. Your crush is all you can think about. But if you asked that person to marry you (without getting to know them first) they would think that you were crazy. Why? Because marriage is for life (and your crush doesn't want to marry a crazy person).
Starting a business is similar to marriage in that you need to:
choose the right thing (person)
invest time and resources to make it work
be committed for life
The difference, is that when you decide to start a business, the business (unlike a person) can't say "no". Even worse: while your friends would dissuade you from marrying someone you just met in Vegas, they will do the exact opposite when you're starting a business. Instead of critically questioning your decision, they'll encourage you with maxims like: "Yeah, you should follow your dream!"
The wrong business will suck you dry. I should know: when I started my retail company, I was infatuated with my idea. But running my store was a different experience: I would invest time and resources, but wouldn't get anything back. Instead of making money, it was losing money. Instead of giving me more freedom, I spent most of my time just trying to keep things afloat. Instead of enjoying my work, going into the shop became a sad grind.
Every time my business treated me badly, I dug in deeper, because I wanted to be a committed entrepreneur. But ultimately I was committed to a business that could never love me back: after 5 years, I pulled the plug (and lost over $80,000 in cash investment).
5by5's Dan Benjamin talks about "the corporate stooge" on his show Quit:
You have to work relatively long hours and it’s thankless. And you go back and forth to work every day and it’s the same thing over and over again like Groundhog Day. And you say, “what am I doing? Is this what my life was? Is this what I went to college for? And it’s a soul-sucking job. It’s sad, and there’s no end to it.
Ironically, I've seen this same scenario played out with my friends that have started the wrong business. The idea of starting a coffee shop, software product, or service company sounded exciting so they jumped in. But soon they become the Startup Stooge. Every day they face a miserable drudgery: committed to a business they no longer enjoy, and that barely makes a living (or worse yet, continues to drive them into debt).
The mistake my friends and I made is this: we never paused to think about the huge life commitment we were making. We never asked: Who will my customers be (and do I like these people)? What do they desperately need? And can I market to them, and still make a profit?*
Before you get married, you probably want to take your future spouse on some dates. In the midst of dating, you might find out you're not compatible; then you break up. Breaking up is painful (and so is letting go of your "brilliant" startup idea), but it's way less painful than a lifetime in a miserable marriage.
Don't get married to your startup idea. The idea itself is actually not that important. Businesses run on customers + dollars not ideas + excitement. In fact, you might be "dating" a bad idea right now. If so, you should break up.
When I asked Amy Hoy about building a product, she gave me simple advice: "Go spend time in communities that you're a part of, that you like, and who spend money. Start observing their pain."
So instead of dating a bunch of ideas, I'm dating different customers. I'm hanging out. Spending time with different communities, and seeing what they need. It's going to take some time, and it's going to take some work. But I'd rather do this work up-front, and really discover where I can add value, than have a messy "divorce" later on.
Special thanks to Amy Hoy who shared the marriage metaphor with me, and has been working really hard at helping me understand all of this.