If you’re a startup founder and you feel good about yourself, you just might justified. But you’re much more likely to be delirious, experiencing that temporary elation that comes from something that makes no difference to your actual business.
For example, you’ll meet a lot of startups feeling good about themselves on the way home from another tech event (what I usually call startup entertainment). Or, on the other hand, you might possibly feel good because you have actual customer interest as demonstrated by engagement, referrals and purchases. If you’re going between these extremes and rarely experience justified elation, how do you know how long to keep working? The question of when do you give up on your startup is always a tough one.
I was thinking about this because over time I’ve received this question from startups in tough places.
The following quote is from a startup founder who recently contacted me. This founder is talented, but has tried two different startups in the past year and as you can see, is thinking about giving up. (Quotes used with permission):
“One of the hard parts in a startup is after launching a beta product, nobody seems to care. I keep working on it but still nobody cares. In the beginning, I was highly motivated and kept pushing through. But at a certain point, I start to doubt, in my mind asking myself, ‘Am I heading to the right direction, or am I totally off? Should I persist in this domain, or do something else? What is the next right thing I should do?’ I don’t know the answer to any of the questions. To make things worse, I look at my own bank account and see the number there is constantly decreasing. I can’t bring anything to my family, and sometimes feel ashamed when facing my family members. Let me do some soul-searching about myself, what I really want to do with the startup. Hopefully I can give you a more solid answer in our next correspondence. Meanwhile, I am freelancing to get some side-income.”
Many of the hallmarks of a founder in a tough spot. Because we’re often so passionate about our work, we think that others should be just as passionate about being customers. The encounter with the reality that isn’t so rosy leads to doubt, family pressures and turning to freelancing instead of working on the startup full-time. I can’t blame him for any of these feelings.
Then this, from another founder.
“I think I am just tired of coding. There are still times I try to brainstorm ideas, but then I quickly see myself being too emotional. Looking back, I sucked at approaching potential customer/discovery/validation, cause I don’t know much outside the technical world. Kinda sounds silly, but I have a feeling that if I can teach & observe better, I can tackle the customer process much easier.”
The talented coder (he’s self-taught and for years supports himself by passive income from products he’s built) who gets tired of coding is a sad thing to see but I understand why. I’ve spent so much time getting coders to look up from their laptops and encounter meatspace that I’m surprised when one of them wants to dive right in. I just didn’t think that he’d want to set the code aside.
And then this from a founder building for the industry he comes from:
“Some things can’t be taught with precision, like when to quit working on a problem. There’ve been countless presentations on startup development (especially with respect to the Lean Startup movement), I feel, especially after having tried to build one myself, that many first-time founders still waste too much time in advancing concepts when… pursuing a pivot/concept any further won’t be productive (arriving at product/market fit, in other words commercial success)… It’s better to let go of an otherwise beautiful idea than waste another 3 months or more, this way we can work on other ideas that might prove to be more worthwhile.”
The beautiful ideas are the most dangerous for entrepreneurs because they are the hardest ones to kill. You’ll have rooms full of people telling you that you must go ahead and build the thing, it’s such a great idea.
Ultimately, whether or not to kill your startup, to let it stumble along or to keep charging ahead is a personal decision. Sometimes when I read posts on why you shouldn’t ever give up, or why you shouldn’t freelance, or why you need to learn early (fail fast) I feel like it’s just too easy to say.
No one can give you a blanket answer to question of how long to work on something. It comes down to the stage you’re at in your life, whether you’re learning and how you feel when you get up in the morning. Founders at heart are not motivated by money. Steve Blank once told a roomful of 500 startup people that in five years two of them would earn $100M (crowd cheers) and the other 498 would earn less than if they worked at Walmart (crowd laughs). But of course, everyone thinks that they’re among the two fortunate ones.
What would it take for you to give up?