#1: Startup is for the ‘weird‘, but that’s ok.
Originally from Holland, I moved to Tel Aviv 1.5 years ago. Once there, I got so inspired to start myself that I just started.
It took me about 2 months to figure this all out, and another 1,5 years to write this down.
And to be honest, I only started a startup for one year and it already failed (read my background story here, if you want to know more), so you could see my experience as “Startup Light.”
These are the thing I learned:
1. Startup is for the ‘weird‘, but that’s ok.
The contrast between Tel Aviv and Holland is huge. In Tel Aviv, its awkward to say you’re doing something else than starting your own startup.
This makes sense. Let me explain.
The country’s youngsters have to do obligatory military service. When people finish army, they’re often depressed and done following orders. Combine this crave for freedom with chutzpah and you’ve got a country where everybody wants to start their own startup.
Anyways, in most countries, it’s not. In most countries, you’re weird if you pursue a startup. When you mention you’re doing a startup, comments differ a lot.
That brings along quite some challenges, in particular when explaining your choice to others.
I’m currently in a situation that is considered weird by many: I’m not drinking alcohol for a year.
Funny thing is: the first time I told someone I wasn’t drinking for a year, I had a flashback to when I started telling people I was doing a startup.
Imagine this situation:
I’m together with a group of friends for dinner. Everybody’s cool and having laughs. Then someone offers to get drinks from the fridge.
“Bram, you want too?”
“No, I’m cool. I recently decided I’m not drinking this year.”
The entire group: “WHAT? Why would you even do that”
Funny thing is that this is precisely what happened when I explained people I wasn’t pursuing a career at an existing organization but actually wanted to build my own business.
80% of the times I had to defend my choice. When I talked to this about other young people, this is exactly what they experienced.
I didn’t realize it’s really weird to do a startup when you’re young.
During this time, I learned something beautiful though.
At the start, you’re a bit afraid of others’ opinion. However, the more weird things you do, the more confident you become and the more you authentically dare to be yourself.
But, even though you’re weird, there’s lesson 2:
2. You’re not at this alone
One of the most amazing things I learned about startups is how it breeds a feeling of being part of a bigger group.
This leads me to two realizations:
- You’re not the only one with your problem
One of the amazing things I realized is that all founders experience the same hardship. This makes dealing with the hardship a lot more bearable. This is actually a Buddhistic principle as well: when you focus on others, your own suffering becomes way more bearable. One of the ways to deal with and accept your anxiety is to realize you’re not the only one feeling this at the moment. It helped me tremendously to realize that there are TONS of entrepreneurs and founders worldwide who are currently feeling depressed or are going through an emotional low.
You might be weird, but you’re not special.
- You don’t have to deal with this by yourself
Being part of this bigger group has tremendous benefit. All entrepreneurs want to help out other entrepreneurs. All of them have been helped at some point by other entrepreneurs and want to give back to the community. I was incredibly surprised by the willingness of successful entrepreneurs to help out. Send them an honest message, and odds are you’ll get invited to their place the next day.
This is something you I really learned by starting my own startup:
You’re not alone.
3. “Startup” is a great excuse for not making money
Ok, I’ll admit it: I studied business. Thus one of my primary skills is being able to draw up models that seem plausible. And so, that’s what I’m going to do for startups as well.
There are four types of “startups”, as you can see in the figure below. This is looking at 1) level of ambition and 2) level of innovation.
The funny thing is that ALL of them call themselves a startup, because they don’t know how to make money.
But really, in 9/10 instances, not knowing how to make money has nothing to do with your type of business… It has nothing to do with having to educate the market… It has nothing to do with your product not having enough features yet… It has everything to do with your capabilities as an entrepreneur.
That’s what I realized as well. It’s just so easy to fall prey to startup’s group think: “Making money will come later.”
I focused on working with as many ‘customers’ as possible, and so offered them all to work for free. And that’s fine, because you’re a startup. Except, it’s not, because you will run out of money and your customers will expect you to keep working for free.
So do yourself a favor: don’t fall prey to “not making money is fine.”
Honestly analyze why you’re not making money — because that’s a huge problem — and fix it!
4. Doing a startup on your own is hard, or maybe even impossible
Once upon a time, there was a guy who thought he could start a startup on his own.
He was inspired by all the entrepreneurs that told him to “just do it”, and so he faced his fears and kicked it off.
And so he started building his MVP, started putting it in front of customers, and tried to work harder and harder to take his startup off the ground.
Time was always short for him, and so he gave up on most things that didn’t contribute value to his startup.
And so he worked and worked.
But customers didn’t pay. Growth halted.
And so, it didn’t work out.
This is the story of many founders, myself included.
And so I asked myself why?
I knew I needed to make something customers actually wanted, spend as little money as possible and have good people.
My biggest lesson: you can’t put good people last.
My idea was that I could build something customers wanted, and once I’d have this — I’d find the right people to scale it up. Because convincing others with a group of customers lined up to buy that product is way more convincing than just me telling a story, right?
Seems that’s a bit idealized.
The thing I learned is good people doesn’t come last, it comes first. This is because the rest will become a lot easier when you’re together.
You complement each other and so have a bigger chance of getting it right
You can turn to each other during the long hours and down time.
You can push each other out of your comfort zone to aim higher.
It’s simply a lot more fun when you’re together.
I’ve seen this over and over in other founders at the moment.
Don’t believe me? Just ask any investor whether they’d invest in a single founder, and you’ve got your answer.
But even when you’re together, it’s seriously hard. Because of that, I learned my fifth lesson.
5. The importance of mental health
People say a startup is a marathon, but that’s an understatement. It feels more like you have to run a marathon in 2 hours. Or as if you’re jumping off a cliff and have to assemble the plain before hitting the ground. Or as if you’re climbing a 40KM high wall without any ropes or anchors.
What I’m trying to say is: it’s high pressure and high uncertainty, and requires you to keep your mind in line more than most other things. You have to be able to deal with your demons.
The moments I didn’t have my mind under control meant not wanting to get out of bed, canceling meetings and calls with prospective customers, procrastinating on the things that were really important.
Luckily, there are tons of things you can do to keep your mind in line.
The thing that really kept me going were these things:
- Acknowledge your mind is like a monkey. Or: meditation (check out Headspace!)
- Gratitude journaling (write down 3 things you’re grateful for each morning)
- Sharing the tough times with my parents, girlfriend, and friends
- Breaks during which I’d go surfing or play ball with a friend
- Reduce alcohol intake
- To this day, I’m really grateful for this lesson, as I’m still applying it every day to get better and aim higher.
6. Failing Forward
Like many others who decide to start their own startup, I read pretty much everything about startups. I even went out and spoke to dozens of successful entrepreneurs. One of the things that all of them agreed on: failing is part of the journey. And so I took this piece of theory and went on failing.
But wow, there’s a real difference between knowing you’re going to fail and failing in reality. And there’s a real difference between knowing you’re going to fail, and failing at a pace that’s 10X higher than anything you’ve experienced so far.
When starting out, basically everything is a failure.
Run a Facebook Ads campaign. Lots of clicks to your homepage, but no signups.
Spend a week building some new feature that you think is going to help you convince potential customers. No one convinced.
Invest 1,5 month on market research hoping to figure out the right customer segment and problem to focus on, resulting in nothing.
The frequency and impact of failures is so high that eventually you have to ask yourself: how am I going to deal with all of this? Given that failure is always there, how can I embrace it to move forward?
I remember I was on a call with my mom and trying to figure out how to deal with my most recent failure. And so she reminded me of something that she’s said to me so many times before, but really landed this time:
“Things either work, or you learn from them.”
That’s really something I learned by starting myself. Looking back, it’s not the things that worked immediately that I remember best. It’s the moments where I failed but moved forward. It’s those moments that I really felt I was getting the most out of life, as I was expanding and growing.
And so, ever since, I’m working to replace my mental model of ‘to fail’ with ‘to experiment.’
This means I shifted:
“I failed my marketing campaign” becomes “I experimented with my marketing.”
“I failed” becomes “I experimented”
“I’m a failure” becomes “I’m an experimenter”
This made acknowledging failure and facing challenging situations 10X easier for me. I wouldn’t have been able to realize this had I not started myself.
7. The startup is 90% mindset, 10% skills
Ok maybe this is just me, but I seriously don’t know how anyone would prepare for a startup in terms of skills.
The funny thing is that many people dream of starting their own business, but they first want to acquire more skills.
Surprise: your job won’t you prepare you for your future startup.
I thought I was pretty set up in terms of skills. I had a Master’s Degree at a leading business school, knew finance, strategy, and what the development of a startup looks like theoretically.
Again, maybe I idealized it a bit, because these skills didn’t bring me anywhere.
And that takes some getting used to. When they say “startup is not for everyone”, I can imagine why.
In reality, it’s more about having the right mindset instead of the right skills.
Looking back, it was more my mindset than my skills that moved me forward.
The types of mindsets that worked for me:
- Solve problems, focus on others, start small
- Priotize consistency and putting in effort
- Be mission-driven, not profit-driven
- Chase truth instead of opinion
- See failing as moving forward
- Have fun
The mindsets that killed me:
- Not prioritizing delegation
- Postponing sales
This lead me to focus on building routines around those mindsets, that have helped doing things out of my comfort zone a lot.
8. The importance of empathy
Have you ever been in a situation where someone else was really sad about something?
If you’re anything like me, you probably want to go to help immediately and start thinking of solutions…
The amount of times this happened and it COMPLETELY didn’t help the other person are endless… (shoutout to my gf for being so patient with me :D)
In a social setting we all understand the impact of empathy (or lack thereof). However, in a startup setting, it’s far from understood, and I didn’t realize its impact until I faced it myself.
Because when I started out, I just started pitching my solution to my customers without any curiosity about their context.
My growth not going as I wanted, I asked a serial entrepreneur about his thoughts on sales and marketing, and he came up with a brilliant piece of advice.
He said (paraphrasing):
What’s the definition of an entrepreneur?
Opinions differ, but if you ask me, it’s a person that does whatever is needed to solve someone else’s problem better than anyone else.
It’s the ability to understand the other person’s perspective, and respond and care in a way that aligns with his or her needs.
That’s exactly what empathy is, and its the foundation of any innovation.
That’s exactly what helped me get my first customers — by simply listening and asking about their problem, and then offering to help them solve it.
And so that’s what I started doing — zooming in on their problem and putting them first.
One of the people I worked with even called me “startup psychologist.”
With curiosity and empathizing, fitting my solution to their problem instead of the other way around, I managed to grow again.
This is something that ingrained itself:
You can’t build something for someone if you can’t imagine the world through their eyes.
9. It’s the best school in self-awareness
Want to get to know yourself? Want to figure out the things you’re passionate about and the things you hate? Want to know in which situations you excel and in which situations you’re inferior?
Start a startup.
The contrast to anything you ever did before is huge. There’s no situation where you’re so independently responsible for managing your mind in order to keep moving forward.
It’s a mirror that will directly reflect back to you what you’re doing great and what you’re not doing so great. For example, what I’ve learned is that I’m not so passionate on the sales side, but more passionate on the product side. I’ve learned that what I like is getting the others’ problem clear and aligning the solution to solve the problem. Had you asked me before, I had no idea.
On top of that, I’ve adopted a lot of habits that are helping me get a better and clearer picture of myself. Being in a startup forced me to adopt those things, because you simply have to declutter, refresh and resharpen your mind.
That’s perhaps the greatest lesson. How far you’re able to go depends on how willing you are to face your insecurities and weaknesses. Before you can face those, you must know them. The mirror called Startup shows them to you automatically.
10. The importance of relationships
In the end, there’s only one thing that moved me forward and kept me moving forward: relationships.
The experience I’ve gained and the impact it’s made in my life was more than dollars could ever be worth. And I couldn’t have done it without the feedback from the amazing people what worked with me on my startup.
The most fulfilling moments were those when I was working with customers on the product.
So besides working with customers to make the business worth it, it’s definitely something that keeps you moving forward. It’s importance is crucial, and I definitely underestimated it before.
Originally published on Medium