You’re So Vain

While we talk about lean startup and vanity metrics we also often send conflicting signals. Here are some examples that startup ecosystems create or enable. From what I’ve seen, vanity is the major culprit.

The Events Problem

Speaker Events. You don’t get any closer to your goal by going to hear a speaker, famous or not. Is this a good use of your time? Will there be other benefits to going that make it worth not working for a couple hours? Or do you feel good about being in the crowd and getting a beer afterward. (Yes, I’ve spoken at lots of events.)

Demo Days. I’ve heard from a few startups that are pressured to demo something they’ve already determined has no future, but which looks good in front of an audience. This is the vanity demo day. Why? It’s there to make the program look good by making the audience feel that things have gone according to plan instead of owning up to the fact that many (most?) startups change direction. Presenting something that you know you’re not going to continue building is a waste of everyone’s time. I’ve worked with startups who have changed course right before their demo days and I’m fine with that… (I’ve run a bunch of demo days and have stayed away from the above problems but have heard it elsewhere.)

Pitch Events. This is where a group of selected startups pitch to a panel of judges, after which one is declared the “winner.” There may or may not be a prize. That’s the format that I’ve seen time and again. The problem is, the judges are not given any opportunity to really evaluate the companies and perhaps are not the best ways of evaluating startups at all. (Would you want to be evaluated based solely on five minutes talking onstage?) The image that I like to show potential startups applying to these events: the performing seal. Does a startup really “win” an event or is the real winner the organizer of the pitch event? (I’ve judged at a bunch of pitch events.)

The Celebrity Mentor Problem

A very small number of famous mentors get a lot of attention, but realistically do not have the time or interest to advise every startup out there. Instead of looking to famous startup mentors for everything (a vanity metric in itself), what about those unheard of mentors who have deep industry knowledge in your field? Those who have worked with the same customers and markets that you are building for today? They might speak a different language than the startup people, but they also might know more about the problems you’re facing. Seek them out instead of going down the popular path.

The Too Much Uneeded Information Problem

Take the number of articles startup people read about their target market and customers and divide that by the number of “startup” themed posts they read in tech publications. Cry when the ratio is lower than three.

The Sexiness Problem

Yes, there is a problem with sexiness in startups. This happens when people feel better about repeating the phrase “I’m in a startup,” than they do about building something people want. This is a hard one to call out because sometimes the good feeling that comes from being in a startup is all people have to hold on to.

Startups can be sexy — geek sexy. By geek sexy I mean that there is no actual sex, but we still feel really good about ourselves.

Since you’re going to be serving your target customers and market for years, make sure that you love it. Following trends that show up in the popular press or investment community will leave you looking bored geek sexy.

Worrying About Your City’s Place On A “Top Startup Location” List

I spent a year in Hong Kong running AcceleratorHK and Startups Unplugged and saw the city get listed as the number one tech hub to watch. People celebrated. I also saw the city not get mentioned on a bunch of other top startup locations. People complained. Neither of these things matter much. Build helpful, supportive communities and you’ll get the recognition you deserve.

Tech Ecosystem, Heal Thyself

Different parts of the tech ecosystem can unwittingly be like doctors who advise low sugar intake and then are seen ripping open a bag of Cadbury Creme Eggs on the walk to the car. We preach lean startup but then make sure that startups are fed a high sugar diet of tech news, demo days, events and lists of celebrity mentors… 

Should this matter? Candy producers don’t set aside part of their profits to treat diabetes. So why should startup communities care about the misinformation of early-stage startups?

I think it’s because these same communities’ reasons for being is to help. They exist because at heart, startup culture in most parts of the world is collaborative. People want successes. They want examples that go on to become bigger supporters of the rest of the community.

So focus on the important. Are you learning? Are you growing? When you determine you need to change your business model, do you do it or stay attached to the original idea you dreamed up in the shower? How much time do you spend working on your startup and how much attending / reading / worrying about these other things?