Get Real or Go Home


A few weeks ago, I read a great article from the June, 2012, issue of Fast Company (yeah, I’ve been busy) that was titled, “Why Tech’s Hunger For Overnight Hits Is Bad For Business.”  The title alone reminded me of many conversations I’ve had with people in our local startup community, especially around their unrealistic expectations on everything from building a business plan (“it’s all crap so why bother”) to marketing (“I’ll just tweet and it’ll go viral”) to customer acquisition (“my idea is awesome, so they’ll come running”), not to mention raising venture capital (“all I need is a meeting with a VC”) and having a huge exit (“I compare myself to the Instagram guy”).


There’s a lot to be said for being enthusiastic, even blindly driven and wildly optimistic, when you’re an entrepreneur. In fact, it’s required.

But there’s also something to be said for having that great enthusiasm coupled with some plain old education. Not an MBA, but talking to others who have done it before or are currently in the middle of it, understanding the table stakes and base expectations (from VCs and others) before you plow forward, and having the humility to seek to understand that which you don’t know, rather than just thinking that you know it all, and then coming across as naive, or worse.

I hear references all the time to Instagram, Facebook, Airbnb, and others–usually in the context of a self-proclaimed entrepreneur thinking that those examples are the norm, that a billion-dollar exit is the goal, and, frequently, that their idea is better than those that have made it. In reality, these success stories are the outliers.

This is where the “wantrapreneurs” separate themselves from the real entrepreneurs. It’s where realism comes in. It’s not that you shouldn’t be shooting for a billion-dollar exit; it’s that you should realize that that’s akin to winning the lottery. So is a million-dollar exit. For every successful entrepreneur or startup, there are hundreds (thousands?) of unsuccessful ones.

Another thing that’s usually missing from these conversations is any realization of the hard work and challenges that these “winning” companies put into their businesses before they hit the jackpot. The fifty-something failed games that Rovio put out before Angry Birds. The layoffs that Instagram had before their Facebook offer. The detailed business plans and highly functional, differentiated, and technically competent products that TechStars’ companies build before pitch day. The 300+ VCs that rejected Pandora over 30 months, not to mention the struggles just to get and prepare for those meetings, before they secured funding.  The research put in to go-to-market plans that are far more detailed than “we’ll just go viral,” and are required for your business to be taken seriously.

Even more, it’s the willingness of successful (and even semi-successful) entrepreneurs to be honest and realistic about where their skills and expertise stop and where they need help. And, it’s their willingness to actually ask for–and listen to–advice from others that helps them increase their odds of success.

With all of the buzz and excitement around Hawaii’s upstart crop of accelerators, it’s going to take some education to let local entrepreneurs know exactly what to expect. Sorry to burst your bubble, but getting accepted into an accelerator isn’t a ticket to success. And, those who enter an accelerator aren’t just given a blank check, handed a thousand customers, then introduced to Google Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz and asked, “how much money do you need?’ Nope. There’s a lot of hard work and initiative required to meet the expectations of being an accelerated startup.

If you want a chance at that success, and you want to be taken seriously as your strive towards success, start being realistic about yourself, your skills, your idea, your plan, and what others expect from a startup. If you can’t get a meeting with a VC or a customer or a potential partner, maybe it’s not because that person is a jerk. Maybe it’s because your idea needs work, you need some customers first, or you lack a coherent and compelling plan.

Back to the Fast Company article, they mention that, “Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, and Twitter all took years to gain millions of users.” Building a business is hard work. It takes time. It’s long hours. It’s humbling. It’s frustrating. It’s exciting and depressing at once. And, it’s not easy.

Buying a lottery ticket, that’s easy.