Avoid the distractions of startup culture and hype, believe in yourself

Based on the decade of experience of being involved in tech startups as a founder, advisor and investor, I can say without doubt that the cacophony of startup hullabaloo is getting louder than ever. It’s a dangerous elephant in the room. The brouhaha is becoming an epidemic.

Really, what does super excited mean, other than referring to an eight year-old on Christmas Day? I asked a founder last week what his value proposition was: Bitcoin crypto-ecosphere incubating API-friendly functionality he replied with a straight face, although I did detect the mad-eyed Jack Nicholson face from the scene in The Shining where he puts an axe through the bathroom door. Here’s Johnny was lurking within.

It’s a cultural shift where we’re seeing the image and status of being an entrepreneur as having more meaning than the outputs they create. It’s in every place that wants to be a tech hub, everyone that wants to be a tech millionaire before they’ve really put a shift in and before they’ve hit 25.

I read an article that highlighted ‘The App Effect’ as the root of all this evil, anyone and everyone wants a shot at the startup game. People want to build an app before having an idea. The Peter Pan Generation.

The nap-rooms, free food, colourful furniture, they all create the image-before-action trend, and indulge people on the possibility of making money before any truly hard work. Google is amazing tech, but they didn’t start with nap-rooms or free food to employees. The culture seems to perpetuate itself. Everything nowadays is a startup.

Then there’s the ‘Uber for X’ phenomenon, folks proudly announce themselves as the on-demand, sharing-economy solution for: pet sitting, laundry, car-washes etc. I’ve even had someone pitch me ‘Uber for underwear’, but that’s not worth sharing. The list is an endless set to the value of n. But at least it’s replaced the i-laundry, i-car wash, i-tutor phase.

There are that many disruptive blockchain Uber foxes (apparently it means riding on the back of the success of a more established business) going to be a white horse like creature with single horn in Manchester, that I’m going to launch a Startup Bullshit Bingo app to play on the Met or walking around Spinningfields. Pity it’s not a Valley. As you were, Manchester.

We’re bootstrapping 101 evangelists. Enough, I could let you have more, but what is the impact of this startup hullabaloo culture? It is deception in various forms such as outlandish exaggeration, warping of reality or just talking in a way that gives an inaccurate picture of how your startup is actually doing. It’s the lies you tell yourself, and this self-deception is akin to self-harm, that concerns me most.

So let’s be clear: startups are starting level companies based on new ideas. It’s a label, nothing more than a time adjective for businesses. Yet it has turned into a tech-cool-hipster way of doing business and it’s a label people yearn for – but how can a ‘business’ that is four years old, with no revenue or customers, still call itself a startup? How can an idea in heads and on paper only be worth £1m?

All of this eager desire to carry that image is helping to establish the Endup Culture, because they are ignoring the fundamentals of any business, and equally, downplaying that the striving in hardship and graft that is the reality of startups, is not for everyone. It’s grit not glamour.

That’s not to say that the real startup culture isn’t valuable, the culture and ambition that stands for exploring the blank canvas of unsolved problems is worthwhile. There are brilliant ideas out there.

But this hype and bravado comes at a price. It’s chipping away at the key things you really need – self-belief and hard work. It’s the Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome. Believing or just even exposing yourself to this noise is an insidious trap. At its heart, it makes you blinded, you second guess yourself and take your eye off the only thing that actually matters: focusing relentlessly on knowing your customers and delivering value to them.

As founders, we necessarily have to believe it’s possible when we don’t know, but the hype around tech startups is creating a schism from the underlying reality. It’s too easy to fall into a routine where you’re always pitching a bright tomorrow, attending all the meet-ups and networking events, living in the startup eco-system bubble, but in reality not focused on head-down, sleeves rolled-up and doing the hard yards. The success of others should be motivating, but you have to put the hours in. Hope is not a strategy.

The problem comes when we distort the truth about our current situation (warts and all) to believe the hype we tell others and indeed ourselves. It increases the feelings of isolation and imposter syndrome, and feeds the lie that you’re the only one who is struggling with the basics. So how can you avoid this hot-air and accept the brutal reality of pragmatism required to get a startup off the ground?

First, know that every founder struggles to the point of despair. You’re not alone in feeling like this despite what you may hear from others. Second, start by being honest with yourself and avoid the seduction of the rhetoric. Close your ears. I don’t believe startup life needs to be about hiding bad news and pretending everything is shiny. It’s about balance, being in the moment, doing and being the best you can.

Launching a startup is a special kind of personal commitment, which will invariably bring profound reminders of your purpose and challenges as a human being. A startup is about finding what matters to you. Then there’s the contradiction between your thinking and reality once you’re into it. These paradoxes and tensions are the very drivers that spur us on.

What counts is not the status of ‘startup’, but the endeavour and joy in the work, so define your purpose and success on your own terms. Don’t indulge yourself in the noise of others, recognise your own dilemmas, because if we don’t discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, why bother in the first place?

Accept, that it carries risk and there is no safety net, but don’t listen to the bravado of others, listen to your own voice. At some point, you’ll feel that you are fully invested – emotion, energy, time – but quitting is not a remote possibility. Whatever the outcome of this soul-searching, you need to dodge the most obvious startup cliché, and at all costs avoid granting yourself the status of the victim.

Living on your own wits as a solo artist in the spirit of individualism, don’t look to the left or the right to blame others, look at yourself. The gung-ho bravado of startup culture is masking the reality and undermining the truth: it’s sheer bloody hard work.

Think about it this way: What’s important to me is not the hype of others; but my opinion of myself. You have to have belief in many things, for yourself, by yourself, to make your startup a success. Let’s look at some of these beliefs.

Belief in self: First and foremost, simply believe in your ability. You can make great things happen. I’ve never met a successful person with low self-esteem. Self-belief is vital, how many things have you not done or tried because you lacked belief in yourself? As Eleanor Roosevelt so deftly put it: Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.

Belief in beating the odds: To be successful, we have to be open minded, with no sense of what you cannot do. Don’t hope you can beat the odds, believe wholeheartedly that you will. There is no second-guessing. As they say, those who say they can and those that say they can’t are both right. If you don’t believe you can beat the odds – chances are you won’t.

Belief to deal with the inner negative voice: When you start to doubt, yourself listen for a moment to that negative inner voice. Whose voice is it really? It’s often a collection of different voices from different times and people from your past that causes self-belief to wane.

One thing’s for sure, that inner self-critical voice shouldn’t be yours. It may masquerade as belonging to you, but it doesn’t really. One of the first steps is to re-examine and discard many of the limiting ideas you have about yourself that you’ve somehow collected along the way. Ditch the baggage!

Belief in flipping a weakness into strength: Dumbo, the cartoon character, was humiliated by his outsize ears. He hated them at first. But through time, he came to use them, to fulfil his destiny, even changing his attitude.

Like Dumbo, if we just focus on what is not right about ourselves rather than what is, then we miss opportunities. Focusing on perceived weaknesses without either taking steps to improve them or also giving fair focus toward our strengths gets us nowhere. Know that the positive flipside of a weakness, in the right context, can be put to good use.

Belief in perseverance: This is a big attribute of entrepreneurs. The obstacles that cause many people to quit are minor setbacks for the true champions, who treat failure as a motivation. It is often that simple difference in self-belief that separates the successful person from the frustrated failure.

Belief in your vision: Your vision is bigger than anything in the moment, it’s what got you started, what keeps you going. Hold your vision and make small steps, no matter how dark the clouds. Along the way, various landing pages, trials and tribulations will offer themselves up. It’s belief in your vision that determines your continued direction and ultimately success.

Tech startups are now a symbol of C21st cool, and founders are hipsters. It’s hard to tell if an idea is any good, but there’s a clear distinction between naivety and pretence. Call startups on reality. If you bring value, you win customers. Otherwise, you don’t. How did we lose sight of that?

Startups bear too much of an image culture, and many founders are too anxious for the status badge. The bravado and hype is damaging, you need to detach from it. I know folks who attend every single network event and yet don’t do much real work. Why? Because it’s cool to be seen at these events. But talking about what you’re doing are all the time just leads to complacency.

If you’ve got this far with this blog, you’ve recognised my somewhat cynical view of everything helps because it keeps you grounded. As Jason Fried says, avoid the trap, it’s signals versus noise. Staying grounded allows you to maintain a focus on shipping. Celebrating equals shipping. It’s not sexy, but shipping pays the bills.

Working for a startup can be amazing, amidst all the uncertainty and frustrations lies the understanding that succeeding means you are moving the needle on something that you enjoy doing. When you connect to the silence within you, and find your self-belief, that is when you can make sense of the disturbance going on around you. Respect yourself. Don’t screw it up by being distracted by all the startup hype.

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