Rather than looking for reality television inspired short cuts, maybe we should just embrace sucking while we get started?
I have a theory:
The singularity actually already happened, but none of us noticed. The machines have been slowly working away on the destruction of humanity in the background. Their chief weapon is manipulation of television scheduling. They will just gradually increase the volume and influence of reality television until it consumes us.
The reason this is working so effectively is that we’re all desperate for our 15 minutes of fame. We’re like frogs in slowly boiling water.
Consider this fantastic rant by Dave Grohl, of Nirvana and Foo Fighters, describing his documentary Sound City:
This movie wasn’t made for cynical middle-aged music critics, it was made for my daughter, or for the teenager down the street who’s trying to figure out how to start a band. When I think about kids watching a TV show like American Idol or The Voice, then they think, “Oh, OK, that’s how you become a musician, you stand in line for eight fucking hours with 800 people at a convention center and then you sing your heart out for someone and then they tell you it’s not fucking good enough.”
Can you imagine? It’s destroying the next generation of musicians! Musicians should go to a yard sale and buy an old fucking drum set and get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in and they’ll suck, too. And then they’ll fucking start playing and they’ll have the best time they’ve ever had in their lives and then all of a sudden they’ll become Nirvana.
Because that’s exactly what happened with Nirvana. Just a bunch of guys that had some shitty old instruments and they got together and started playing some noisy-ass shit, and they became the biggest band in the world. That can happen again! You don’t need a fucking computer or the Internet or The Voice or American Idol.
(There is so much I love about this quote, which I stumbled across a while back when it was referenced in a now deleted blog post about running shoes, of all things. But the best bit of all might be that the source is a story called Rock ’n’ Roll Jedi which was printed in “Delta Sky Mag” - i.e. an American airline seat-back magazine).
How do other professionals feel about their reality television equivalents, I wonder?
Do chefs love MasterChef? Do interior designers love The Block? Do architects love Grand Designs?
Maybe the distinction has been blurred in all of these areas too?
If you substitute musicians for startup founders, what Dave Grohl described is exactly how I feel about business plan competitions that fool people into thinking the hard bit of starting a business is having an original idea. And about award shows that pit founders against each other with arbitrary judges deciding the “winner”. And especially about anything described as a “Dragons Den”.1
All of these things are entertainment, which is fine. No harm, no foul. Very little reality, despite the name.
Except that it seems that many people fail to make that distinction. Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, people do seem to believe that entering a talent show is the path to a career as a singer, and keep lining up every time there is a call for auditions. These train wreck shows seemingly have no problem finding people who think that inviting cameras in to film their wedding planning or their house build or their blind date with a stranger is a normal and constructive thing, without appreciating that the only possible winner from that equation is the media company selling advertising around the eventual show when it screens. Even as viewers, as entertained as we might be at the time, we’re losers by any reasonable measure of opportunity cost.
It is, to use Dave Grohl’s patter, fucking nuts!
And it’s so depressing to see it become the dominant narrative in the startup ecosystem: artificially compressed timeframes; customer discovery and product pivots (or whatever else is the buzzword de jour); demo days; fail festivals; angels or dragons; making it rain.
This sort of stuff is mostly just startup theatre: a contrived and scripted experience that has very little in common with the things that successful startups in the wild fill their days with, in my experience.
The only thing missing is the film crew, although surely that can’t be far away.
I believe that imperfection creates beautiful things and it actually gives way to progress so that people should be less concerned with being perfect and more concerned with being themselves.
— Dave Grohl, again
You may reasonably ask: if all of this is so dumb, why is it increasingly common and popular?
I think the explanation is simply that starting a company is hard. And more than likely to end badly. As a result we’re all attracted to this sort of reality television approach because we think it might be an easier route, or increase the likelihood of a successful outcome.
But, we don’t qualify our startup by winning a business plan competition, or convincing a sucker to invest, or being accepted into an accelerator or incubator program. We qualify by building something customers want, and we win by selling it repeatedly to them at a price that is greater than our costs.
So, the short cut we hope to find in all of this theatre is a mirage.
What’s the alternative?
Dave Grohl has the answer: enjoy the walk.
If you want to be a founder, don’t be impatient. Realise that the person promising you a short cut is probably trying to sell you something.2 Rather, find some friends to work with, and accept that for quite a while you’re going to suck. But suck in the knowledge that you’ll look back later and realise how much you enjoyed sucking, or more accurately how much you enjoyed sucking slightly less each day. Understand that the goal isn’t to be famous at any cost, and that it’s better to suck in relative obscurity. Don’t be tempted too soon by the glare of the spotlight. Tell your story to everybody who will listen, and if you have something that’s actually compelling then word will spread. Contrary to what you’re told by those who love startup theatre, successfully growing a company is much less about discovering the magic spark and much more about the repeatable grind. But know that after taking a few small steps forward each day you’ll look back and be staggered by how far you’ve come.
If you want to be an investor, don’t be lazy and sit back expecting good ventures to come to you. New early-stage investors often fall into the trap of thinking their job is to pick which companies to invest in, but the smart investors realise that the best companies select their shareholders carefully, rather than taking any money they can get. So, ditch the investor groups and get out there and find the people actually working on interesting things and then roll up your sleeves and help them out in whatever way you can. There are, thankfully, still enough that haven’t been sucked into the noise in the ecosystem. Look for those who are quietly impressive, beyond the prominent few that get all the headlines. Pick one (or if you’re crazy, two), validate that they are willing to take guidance, and prove that you can contribute more than just cash. And then, when the time comes, there is every chance they will choose to talk to you first.
And, importantly, realise there are many shades of grey between founder and investor. The best and arguably only way to learn about a startup is to be part of a startup. Ignore The Apprentice and do an actual apprenticeship. The good news is that’s very easy to do because there are more and more high-growth startups now that are all desperate for team members.
Of course, doing all of these things still provides no guarantee. Not every group of friends playing grunge in their garage in Seattle in the 90s became Nirvana.
Sorry I don’t have a better bridge to sell you.
The origin story of the Foo Fighters hit song Everlong:
Referenced in this excellent conversation with Minnie Driver.
Unless you have Julie Christie producing, Bob Jones judging and actual piles of $100 notes as props, then your event isn’t a Dragons Den! ↩︎
Of course, you might want to buy what they are selling!
For example, both Nirvana and One Direction have been successful in the music industry.
There is nothing inherently wrong when founders choose an accelerator program, provided they are clear about the benefits they will get, rather than just assuming it’s what they have to do to be famous. If you’re one who is tempted, there are lots of examples now of successful companies who have taken this route, so talk to them an understand the approach. There is a hierarchy of accelerator programs, and that the quality drops off exponentially as you work your way down the list. So, start at the top of the pile (e.g. Y Combinator in Silicon Valley) rather than with the one that happens to be closest to where you live. ↩︎