I’m done. I’m tapping out. I’m bowing out of the startup rat race. No, we’re not shutting down Baremetrics. Very much the opposite. I’m just finished subscribing to and following the traditional startup mentality as we build our company.
In June 2016, I realized we had less than two months of runway left. We had an existential crisis on our hands, the kind that you’ve read about hundreds of times. The kind where the business was there one day, then all of the sudden just…wasn’t. We were just burning money way too fast.
We had to course-correct very quickly. The whole team took a 15% pay cut and I took a 30% pay cut. Long story short (a story that I’ll write about more in depth in the next month or so), we got back on course. Everyone is now back up to full salaries and we’re profitable on top of that. We’ll be a million-dollar company by this summer. But getting here has been quite the struggle.
Playing the part
The way that we ended up in that situation was just such a classic “silicon valley” scenario that I’m honestly embarrassed to even talk about it. Raising multiple rounds of funding (we had 2 rounds totaling $800k, which is honestly small by most SV standards), hiring fast, spending faster, pushing hard for the mythical “hockey stick” growth. Beating ourselves up when we didn’t have that growth. We were embracing it all.
It wasn’t like our investors were breathing down our necks demanding this, they categorically were not. It was self-prescribed. I was choosing it. I was willingly playing the part. “Hey! We’ve got a bank account full of money! We should spend it! Right? Right?!?!?”
I wasn’t trying to be negligent with the money. I was just overly optimistic about revenue growth. Our revenue was definitely growing month over month, but my eternal optimism believed that it’d magically start reallygrowing in “just a few months”.
Instead, our revenue growth has been annoyingly steady. There’s no hockey stick. Just good ‘ole fashioned “normal” growth.
Then the lightbulb went off
This past November I took a much needed break, completely disconnecting from work for 10 days. It gave me a chance to pull my head out of the startup hole and get some clarity on things.
I realized that for the past couple of years we’d been in this weird quasi faux-startup “gahhhh we need growth!” mode. I say “faux” because we actually have revenue, which the majority of the typical SV startups don’t, but we needed so desperately to get profitable that we were just throwing out things left and right hoping something would stick and be the magic pill.
We were launching things and immediately heading to the next big idea on the list because our time was running out.
And yes, I understand, this is borderline comical to anyone in the bootstrapped world or really anyone outside of “startups”. But like I said, we had found ourselves fully embracing “silicon valley startup” mentality.
The non-existent race
That 10 day break gave me actual perspective. We’d been trying to build Baremetrics like there was this imaginary startup finish line. As though we could lose or even come in first. We were treating our company like we were in some race for time. But there is no race. There isn’t another runner we could lose to and we can’t “come in first”.
Everything you read about building a startup implies there’s a formula. That doing X and Y gives you the highest probability of Z outcome. But that formula assumes “Z outcome” is the thing everyone should be shooting for.
Jason Lemkin, who really does have some amazing advice around building SaaS companies (especially on the topic of sales), wrote this a couple of years back:
Can you really, honestly, commit to obsessively thinking, worrying, futzing, stressing about how to do The Impossible. Every. Single. Moment of the day.
Nothing else, but work. Even when you are playing with the kids. Having dinner with your husband. Because that’s what it’s going to take.
What the actual hell. Not only is that not necessary, it’s incredibly unhealthy and completely unproductive. Do not obsessively think about your startup “every single moment of the day”.
Doing that is what kills startups every day. Founders get burnt out. CEOs make terrible decisions inside of a vacuum. All because they lose perspective working inside their bubble.
I get why people read stuff like that (or any advice from people who’ve had some big payout). We try to find patterns and formulas in everything to make sense of it. We think “well if they did those things, then I can do those things too and also succeed!”
But that’s not how life works and that’s not how business works.
So many entrepreneurs think that the end goal is a big acquisition or going public. They model their actions based on the handful of atypical and statistically improbable stories they read about. They read advice like the stuff above talking about sacrificing every facet of their life for their business, and they think that’s some way to live.
But it’s not. It’s not a way to live. It’s not healthy. It doesn’t make you interesting. It’s not fun building anything that way. It, statistically speaking, likely won’t even make you very much money.
So what if you changed what “success” is? What if success was paying yourself $150,000 a year and building a real sustainable business that you build up for 10 years and sell for a few million? (No, that’s not considered a success in Silicon Valley.) Or maybe you never sell it?
What if “success” was paying yourself $30,000 a year and traveling the world with your family?
What if “success” is building an amazing place to work where your team is paid really well and actually enjoys working there (instead of having people who jump from startup to startup playing the equity game)?
What if “success” wasn’t attached to team size but instead was attached to customer happiness?
There are an endless number of ways to define “success” and it’s the definition of insanity to think there’s only one way to do it. Redefining success to something different than the way Silicon Valley defines it doesn’t mean you aren’t ambitious. I’d argue following a formula is the thing that isn’t ambitious.
No, creating your own definition of success and doing things the way you want to do them…that’s success to me. That’s the ambitious thing. Because doing things your own way, on your own terms, is where you’ll find fulfillment. And really, that’s what we’re all after.