As I’ve mentioned in the past, being a founder is a shitty, often thankless job. There is a lot of rhetoric in the press about how great and fun it is to be a founder – captain of your own ship1Self-employment is not nearly as fun as others would make it seem, having been on both sides.!
But in reality, you can’t build a business out of icing.
Great businesses have a long, hard slog to get to the point that you can step back and be “normal” again and capture success.
For the record, this title is totally inspired from this Tweet:
"We need a creative solution to this problem."
"No, you don't hun. You need to do the work. You can't build a business out of icing."
— Chris McCrudden (@cmccrudden) July 17, 2017
Chris (and Tom) hit the nail on the head. There are a lot of things that make a business successful that are totally boring. Operations typically fits into this (strategy is fun, execution is boring), as does things like HR processes and investing in your people.
Unfortunately you have to do them, and when you have very few employees, that doesn’t mean you can just ignore the massive gaping hole. Most founders plug this by either themselves being a master of many trades, or hiring people who are.
Personally, I have spent time doing marketing/sales, operations, development/engineering, customer support, customer success and business intelligence. That’s not to say that I’m actually that skilled in most of those areas – in fact, the opposite is true. I just didn’t have the time, money or manpower2That’s my rationalisation at least to have other people do it at certain periods of our growth.
I enjoy solving hard strategic problems. I do not enjoy things like CRM implementation, planning data structures or writing code that engineers won’t sigh and have to rewrite before it can be deployed (guilty a thousand times of that one).
But they’re all necessary, and you can’t build a business just out of the things you like to do. You have to fulfil all of the core functions and then some in order to see success and last as a business.
Doing all of these things takes time. God, it takes so much time. So the easy and tempting thing to do is just do it yourself rather than bring people in to do it for you.
I spoke to some university students studying ‘technology venture creation’ this week, and took the opportunity to reflect on some of the early days of my latest startup (which started around 3.5 years ago).
For the first 2 years, it was hard. So bloody hard. I was trying to hold down a full time role doing consulting projects while growing a SaaS company almost single-handed. I was trying to solve technical problems while also solving finance problems and support problems (let alone people problems or consulting projects).
I wrote in a blog post for Schedugram recently:
I often tell people (as the founder of Schedugram) that for the first 2 years of our operation, I pretty much didn’t sleep and spent the whole time learning to write the right kind of error management systems for posting to Instagram. While it’s a little exaggerated to say that, it’s not entirely untrue.
For a while, I was being woken up every every hour day and night, usually needing to reboot a server. We’ve ticked over 350,000 alerts3That’s not to say 350,000 reboots – if that were the case I’m not sure we would have lasted. Stability was pretty bad at the start, and took a long while to get better since we started, sent mostly to my phone until about 6 months ago when I finally caved and hired someone to look after devops 12 hours of the day.
There are a lot of funny4Relatively speaking reflecting on it retrospectively, others involved in the story may not agree that it was funny… moments, like where I would end up going out with friends to a club and insisting on bringing my bag and laptop in case something went wrong. Or having to reboot a server in the midst of watching an AFL game at the MCG, Macbook in one hand and hotdog in the other.
Much to my surprise, some of our customers did notice this, and one based in the US even pulled me up on the last sentence after we published that post:
I don’t agree that you are exaggerating that you didn’t sleep. Being on the other side of the world, I did see responses from you at hours I thought everyone was sleeping on that side. I did wonder if you slept.
I have even more respect for you now. Not only because you, Hugh, reached out and communicated with me, but because we did a lot of growing together. Schedugram grew as our Instagram audience grew. So yeah, I absolutely see you not only as a colleague but as an extension of our team!
Side note: it’s really lovely to have this experience of customers who have been on the journey after taking a risk on you in your early days – we are lucky to have quite a few of them. That’s a post for another day.
I learned a few important lessons through that experience: I saw the impact of having one single weakest link, as any time something went wrong in the rest of my life, the business would falter. I also learned a lot about the effect of garbage user experience on support ticket volumes, and how much people complain any time you change something, no matter how minor.
Most importantly, I learned some lessons about what being a founder means for those around you.
Out of necessity, you become subsumed by the business, with a singular obsession, always focussing on the next big problem that rears its head. At the start, those problems are endless5Not sure if over time the problems become less endless or you become better at handling them though…. You see friends and family less often, and often your significant other (if you have one) is severely neglected.
Some people get stuck in that stage forever. I suspect Elon Musk is in that category, forever chasing the next challenge over the hill. Kudos for the focus.
I was lucky that after a while, the clouds parted and I started to be able to have people who were great at their jobs doing the things I didn’t like to do, was utterly bad at or didn’t have time to (cough support and engineering cough). That freed up my time, and let me finally get on long haul flights without ending up in a fit of anxiety about what would happen if nobody could fix a problem that appeared6To be honest, the one time I think I am most anxious now is any situation involving no internet, but I’m a lot better than I used to be. Hasn’t gone away though..
I have learned that my experience isn’t that unique – there are few founders of companies that have achieved any kind of scale who haven’t had this experience at some point.
Others end up getting off the bus when it gets difficult, not wanting to do all of the shitty things. They drop their startup and go back to a corporate job, or accept an early acquisition offer because they have simply run out of puff. I’m sure some people have succeeded while leading a well balanced life, which is great, but I think they are the minority.
The one universal lesson I’ve seen is that no matter what, you can’t build a business out of icing. You will have bad times, you will do things you don’t like, you will make decisions that you later regret. But it’s easier to deal with when you are expecting it.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Self-employment is not nearly as fun as others would make it seem, having been on both sides.|
|2.||↑||That’s my rationalisation at least|
|3.||↑||That’s not to say 350,000 reboots – if that were the case I’m not sure we would have lasted. Stability was pretty bad at the start, and took a long while to get better|
|4.||↑||Relatively speaking reflecting on it retrospectively, others involved in the story may not agree that it was funny…|
|5.||↑||Not sure if over time the problems become less endless or you become better at handling them though…|
|6.||↑||To be honest, the one time I think I am most anxious now is any situation involving no internet, but I’m a lot better than I used to be. Hasn’t gone away though.|