4 Things I Learned Launching a Startup as an Outsider in My 40s
As far back as I can remember, I’ve had an entrepreneurial spirit. I don’t know if we’re born with business savvy but circumstances can turn you into an entrepreneur in a hurry. Just ask any designer that lost their job during the dot com collapse or the housing crisis. At 46 I finally gave in to my nagging ambition and dove head first into launching a startup. My only regret is not knowing what was lurking under the water. Here are four things I learned during my journey from industry outsider to startup founder.
1. Anyone that tells you ideas don’t matter is an idiot. My startup was founded on an idea that I was extremely passionate about. I noodled the concept, created the prototype, and re-designed the app 3x before I shared it with peers. My first pitch was to a seasoned startup pro and I’ll never forget his reaction “You care too much about your idea. It’s all about the execution.” This person was brilliant and a huge influence on our product, but idea bad/execution good? This was a foreign concept to me. I continued to pitch and heard the same mantra over and over again until it hit me — startup professionals don’t value ideas because good ideas are few and far between in their world. If you’ve got a good idea, be prepared to live and die by it. The result will be much more gratifying than pivoting to a business you don’t believe in.
2. The startup business is filled with hot garbage. To be clear, I’m not referring to apps or technology and I’m not calling out VCs or Founders. This observation is about the sea of self-proclaimed coaches, social marketers, meme jockeys, and Gary V wannabes dripping their sewage all over social media. As an older entrepreneur, the most precious resource you have is time and wading through this content can waste a ton of it. Who wants to spend their attention dollars on advice from someone that hasn’t been there done that? Your mentor and co-founders might have good suggestions but If you’re right off the startup boat, watch every video in the “Startup Basics” playlist on This Week in Startups. If I’d known about this resource when I started I could have conserved countless research hours.
3. The startup and music industries are clones of one other. Having spent most of my life in music, the similarities are uncanny. Bands and startups begin as a group of individuals working toward a business goal. They bootstrap their project and raise money from friends and family to put a product in the hands of customers. If those customers like the product, gatekeepers (A&R and VCs) have the power to greenlight the project and release it to the world. I began to wonder if they weren’t just similar but if one was actually responsible for the other. Was “launching a startup” the new “let’s start a band?” The music industry has been dying for years and it would make sense that creative people without an outlet would need a place to focus their energy. Maybe we’re witnessing a unique migration accross business and culture.
4. Saying startup professionals don’t know everything is the understatement of understatements. I’ve pitched my startup to VCs, accelerators, entrepreneurs, and even my family. In preparing for those pitches and creating my product I’ve spent an enormous amount of time learning the market and I’m hyper aware of the habits and preferences of the people we’re targeting. I’m always blown away when startup professionals come to the table with preconceived ideas about our product and market with no logical arguments to support their assumptions. In the startup world, you’ll find that people hear something from across the room and treat it as gospel. Whatever you do, defend your research and ignore these monsters because you’re never going to change their minds. Build your product and teach them a lesson with your success.
To make a long story longer but slightly less surly… You don’t need to be a Stanford grad to launch a startup and I’d suggest that outsiders tend to create more interesting businesses. Look at LA and the startup boom that’s happening there. It’s not because of Ivy League business schools — it’s the energy being generated by the artists, musicians, and creative minds in that community. Do the research, ignore the noise, and trust yourself. Pursue your idea until you run out of passion or change the world in the process.