The world would be a much better place if fewer people tried to build startups. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we could use less entrepreneurship. Innovative entrepreneurs will pull us out of this recession more sustainably and more meaningfully than any government bureaucrat with indirect policy levers could ever do. What I am saying is that we need more people wanting to build companies, not startups. That is not a too subtle distinction.
Would-be entrepreneurs proclaim proudly how they are starting new businesses and are willing to endure many years of blood, sweat, and tears. To be sure, the willingness to work hard and persevere ranks high on the list of essential entrepreneurial character traits, but I think we have over-romanticized the startup life. Low pay/no pay, long hours, and years of struggle have come to be badges of honor for those of us still in the minor leagues of startups. We’ve either frantically adjusted our business models (groping after every hot trend like Web 2.0, social networking, or microblogging) or we’ve stubbornly stuck to our original ideas regardless of market feedback. The most important thing we have in common is that we’ve been unable to graduate to the major leagues of thriving, growing, established companies too big and successful to be called startups.
However you define a startup, trust me, there is no glamor or glory in remaining a startup. But we’ve come to fall in love with the Myth of the Startup. We all know a few guys who seem to perpetually be working on a startup. They love the story of being a startup entrepreneur and the attendant lifestyle. Even more pronounced is the first-time entrepreneur who has bought into the Startup Myth. His romantic vision of startup life becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and he is destined to struggle with a small “startup” because that’s what he wants.
Dump the warm fuzzies. Entrepreneurship is not about startups. Entrepreneurship is not about eating ramen noodles and scraping by. Entrepreneurship is not about being able to tell your friends and family you are a founder of a startup so you can finally impress them. Entrepreneurship is not about working 12 hour days ad infinitum and sleeping only 4 hours per day to show the world how tough and committed you are. Entrepreneurship is not about attending industry conferences so that you can hear yourself speak and tell your competitors how excited you are about your opportunities. Entrepreneurship is not about blogging about entrepreneurship. Most of all, entrepreneurship is not about some romantic ideal of living a tough startup life.
Get real. Entrepreneurship is about growth and value. Entrepreneurship is about creating something a sufficient number of people want or need. Entrepreneurship is about turning every dollar of resources spent into something worth more than a dollar. Entrepreneurship is about building a company and growing it beyond startup stage. The list of what entrepreneurship is not is much longer than the list of what entrepreneurship is. That’s because there are a lot of things people associate with entrepreneurship that really don’t have anything to do with entrepreneurship. It’s like describing a hamburger. Despite the many different ways to make a hamburger, there are almost infinite ways to describe what a hamburger is not.
Dream, dream big. Think, think different. Start a startup and eat ramen noodles (rice and soy sauce in my case) if you have to. Revel in your foldout tables and chairs. Dance a jig in your cozy garage. But realize that all these are just trappings of a startup. Figure out a way to scale so that your startup can grow to be a valuable company. Build a company, not a startup. If you love the startup lifestyle, leave your company after it outgrows you to start something new again. It’s a good thing to have your company outgrow you, your garage, and your romantic visions of what it means to be an entrepreneur.