The internet is full of content related to entrepreneurship and starting a new venture. For me the most difficult part was to pinpoint at which stage and context such content is relevant. Consider founding and growing a successful startup as a series of 1000 steps you need to take. The thing is, most of these steps need to be taken in a specific order. If you are in the process of completing step 13 and should next take step 14, but instead start working with step 27 you are probably doing the wrong thing. I find this to be one of the big problems with most content out there. For people who haven't gone through the complete series of steps at least once, it is really hard to know what information is relevant for them, and at what time — especially as the steps required are always different depending on your startup.
In my first posts, I will be sharing my experiences about the very first steps considering a very specific use case of starting your first venture without considerable professional experience. I am talking from the perspective of launching a high-growth technology startup, but I think most content here will be applicable for most startups, with the caveat of not considering all small businesses as startups.
I will be covering my view on the first phases of becoming an entrepreneur. These phases will hopefully help you to think about the right questions, so you can concentrate on learning the right things at the right stage of the project. In this first post I will write about how to think about failure and entrepreneurship as a career path.
The fear of failure blocking your career
Failure is a topic usually strongly connected with entrepreneurship. There is a lot of research about the high failure rates and I think many people are scared of failure. It is easy to accept the mantra of learning from your mistakes, but failure can still feel frightening.
As a first time entrepreneur you will most certainly "fail" - at least if you consider "failure" as things not working quite as you planned. There are no guarantees that your venture will be successful, and there is hardly any way you can have these kind of guarantees. The risk of failing is always there, no matter how well prepared you are, and the odds are very much against you succeeding.
However this definition of failure is rather silly. Sure, things don't usually work out as you planned, but that doesn't mean that your career ends in a failure. Most research quoting the high failure rates of companies looks at companies as the unit of perception. The question is, what is a company when applying this to a startup context? In general it is just an idea you try to validate with a team and some funding. Based on this, if you validate that the idea doesn’t work and the funding runs out, has your company failed? You could raise more funding with the same team to validate another idea in the same problem space, but would this be considered another company? All these questions are somewhat irrelevant. In the end you have a startup that works with experiments to validate different ideas. The experiments mostly fail and that is part of being an entrepreneur. The legal structure of the companies you found hardly matter - In the end these are just shells; vehicles that allow you to experiment as an entrepreneur. When considering failure you should switch the unit of perception from companies to yourself.
There is hardly any research considering how many serial entrepreneurs actually succeed in life, but I am sure that the "failure numbers" would certainly look very different. Instead of deliberating on whether to try building such an idea as a company, you should be questioning whether you want to strive for becoming a master entrepreneur skilled in creating value. If you strive for that for long enough, your probability of failure is 0%.
I have not failed. I've just found 10 000 ways that won't work.Thomas Edison
Mastering the art of value creation is hard and takes a lot of practice. Companies are simply vehicles in which you can practice this art, and should be viewed as such. In case you want to become a master in entrepreneurship, you might want to also map out other career options where you can learn the required skills. Founding your company is one opportunity to learn entrepreneurship, but it doesn't hurt to have a 360 degree view on other options out there. Being an early employee, software engineer or working in product management are also great places to practice turning your ideas into products that create value. It might be worthwhile to consider these viable career options, even if you decide to start your own company first.
Starting your company can be a great shortcut to an entrepreneurial career - this way you jump right into the water and can identify the areas where you need to improve professionally. If you're really lucky, your idea simply takes off and you can attract smarter and more experienced people as co-founders, employees, investors and advisors. This way you actually can learn on the job. If you encounter problems, you definitely can learn from them and also map out those skills that you need to improve on. The path towards becoming a master entrepreneur is a career, but the steps you need to take in this career aren't mapped out as with most normal career paths.
As things almost certainly don’t work out as planned, it is important that you are able to have a growth mindset that accepts failure as part of the learning process. You should construct your own vocabulary in such away that it is empowering and guides you to the right direction. Perhaps the word “failure” doesn’t have a place in this vocabulary, or you link this to something more positive than the general thought of failure. By constantly learning from your mistakes, you will eventually make it. However, your business idea might be different, the team might be different and it may take longer than first anticipated.
I'll be posting another post next week about what really is required for getting started with a startup.