Cheap, Plentiful Tools Don't Ease Startup Pain

Every time I meet an entrepreneur, I ask them how they’re doing. I do my best to make it clear I’m genuinely interested in the answer: looking into their eyes, giving them time to formulate a response, implying in my tone that the answer may well be lengthy, complicated, and full of despair -- the way you ask people who have suffered a recent bereavement how they’re doing. Without exception -- and regardless of the real or apparent success of the endeavor -- the answer is the same: some variation of, “It’s hard work. I’m exhausted, anxiety-ridden, and full of doubt. If I had known before I started…”

The entrepreneurs I meet seem to find it cathartic to talk about their challenges, with good reason. It’s a lonely job at the helm of a fledgling organization, and it’s often a huge relief to know that all your concerns mean you’re normal, not crazy.

But the universality of these concerns bespeaks a bigger truth: namely, that entrepreneurship is hard work, work that tends to leave you exhausted, anxiety-ridden, and full of doubt.

You might not guess this from the public image of entrepreneurship. Last week, The Economist published a special report on tech startups (free registration required to access it), which referred to this era as the entrepreneurship equivalent of the Cambrian explosion, in which conditions were ripe for rapid evolution: “[T]he basic building blocks for digital services and products -- the ‘technologies of startup production,’ in the words of Josh Lerner of Harvard Business School -- have become so evolved, cheap and ubiquitous that they can be easily combined and recombined. Some of these building blocks are snippets of code that can be copied free from the internet, along with easy-to-learn programming frameworks (such as Ruby on Rails). Others are services for finding developers (eLance, oDesk), sharing code (GitHub) and testing usability (UserTesting.com). Yet others are application programming interfaces (APIs)… The most important are ‘platforms’ -- services that can host startups’ offerings (Amazon’s cloud computing), distribute them (Apple’s App Store) and market them (Facebook, Twitter).”

Yep, the basic building blocks are all there, making it more accessible to do a tech startup today than it was 15 years ago. It costs less, and there’s a lot less wheel reinvention. But “more accessible” doesn’t necessarily mean “easy.” It’s more accessible to make home movies than it used to be, but it’s not easy to create a great film. It’s more accessible to distribute music, but it’s not easy to build a following of fans. It’s more accessible to start a tech company, but it’s not easy to develop a product that is both unique and desirable, market it, and make money while doing so.

You can apply methodologies that have proven useful, but a successful outcome is not the linear result of some formula. Methodologies are hard to implement well, a point acknowledged in The Economist’s special report, which referenced a series of blog posts by Venkatesh Rao, ”Entrepreneurs Are The New Labor”: “[One reading of what is happening is that] the new entrepreneurs aren’t entrepreneurs at all, but wantapreneur-laborers being humored by a victorious investor class… Entrepreneurship is three things: a set of business skills, a set of political skills, and a stash of hoarded unfair advantages, held in reserve for the right opportunity. When the latter two vanish, it becomes merely a teachable generalist skill, rather than a cultivated talent for successful risk-taking. You can codify the first, but only time and experience allow you to develop the other two elements. “

To be a true entrepreneur and a successful one, you have to do everything right, and you have to be lucky. Ubiquitous tools make some things more manageable, but none of them lets you escape the pain of the startup, and none of them makes it “easy.”

So, tell me the truth. How are you doing?

Tags: start-ups
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2 comments about "Cheap, Plentiful Tools Don't Ease Startup Pain ".
  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , January 24, 2014 at 2:45 p.m.
    Better you than me to start that business. It is not getting easier, it is getting more complicated and the more complicated it gets, the more people who would have started a business and be a great entrepreneur will not be able to compete. It becomes exclusionary not inclusionary as I venture to say it already has.
  2. Vince Williams from Jazz & Blues Television Ltd , January 24, 2014 at 2:59 p.m.
    Kaila - an excellent article reinforcing the point that, a startups success is heavily dependent on the personality and determination of it's founders. Technology is a great enabler, allowing many tech startup companies to disrupt long established industries. However, in all cases such startups are using technology to provide completely new services/goods. So I would include a fourth requirement to be a true entrepreneur - a pioneering spirit.