💃🏽 Founder terms
Or: How being a founder for the long term can only be done for your Very Personal Reasons.
I was going to write about something else entirely today. Something that is Interesting and Important. But, as happens in the world of startups, one conversation can change a trajectory, a viewpoint, a blog post.
This conversation with a friend/peer/funder-to-my-founder was a follow-up to one we had in the spring. And while we talked about other, Expected things, I realized that both conversations, at their heart, were really about:
Why do I do what I do?
In the scheme of daily startup-y things, it’s both an irrelevant question and the only question that matters.
I do what I do because in my mind there is no choice. I feel compelled and obsessed to figure out this puzzle in this one space. I find everything about it fascinating. I could talk to others about it for hours. I feel fired up at the inequities and the injustices. I feel exhilaration with every new sign up and paid Stripe notification in #newusers. And I love collecting the people that come together to build incredible product and experiences and teams. Why I do it matters less than that I’m doing it and I choose to keep doing it.
But then: this is not a “going concern” or some other profession. The matter of “keep doing it” is ever present. Especially when you’re flirting with, but still on this side of product-market fit, staring at a ticking runway clock. Plus: all this striving is exhausting. In and of itself but also against the noisy backdrop of everyone else’s striving and fundraising and success.
And finally, this undeniable fact: in most start-ups, until at least PMF, there is no startup without the founder(s).
So: why do I do what I do is a central question. Maybe the only question.
I’ll be honest and say I’ve really struggled with this question in the past 6 months. I started building this company in January 2020, at a full-out sprint doing YC, and then got swept into the tsunami that was COVID. Not only have I spent the past 2 years trying to personally stay afloat, I’ve had a family and young kids and then, yes, a company and team and mission (which btw, also became so much more urgent during COVID but also morphed into something unrecognizable - pods and mask wars and school board fights and parental burnout and The Great Exodus).
Why I started the company got wrapped up in just: stay alive and push forward. It got wrapped up in this very extreme survival flavor of parenthood. A flavor no parent in history would wish upon any other parent.
So I’m proud that we did. Stay alive.
But no matter the backdrop or the “macro context”, start-ups live and die by this one truth: staying alive is not the point of a startup. Growing is. And quickly at that. (Btw, growth because you’re building something more and more people want, not some distorted, gratuitous Growth idol to be worshipped in and of itself).
So as we’ve iterated to crack the whats and hows of lifting the invisible load, I’ve also been conscious of keeping it an “investable venture”. Something that has the trajectory of scale impact and outsized returns.
It was particularly hard in 2021 when it seemed that everything was getting funded to the hilt with dubious propositions and promises of Quick Returns vs. good ol fashioned Innovation and user value.
By the time spring 2022 rolled around I was all the things: burned out, jaded, questioning why I was doing this.
So: why was I doing this?
Over the months of just surviving and iterating to PMF, I had stopped asking myself that in a real way. I had stopped being connected to my reason.
And that’s when I realized: Knowing why I do this is not just a question to be answered during panels or investor diligence.
It’s the well from which my inspiration and motivation and creativity and persistence draw upon.
Faced with the option of not doing this and continuing, I was forced to make a case for why I should persist. And in so doing, I realized how I had been building on other people’s terms for months. Investors, peers, the fickle perception of the “public”.
I had stopped building on my terms. Building for my users in the way that I saw fit.
Since that realization, I’ve worked to get back to what I know and how.
It’s felt fucking incredible.
The odds are as long as ever. But I’m seeing traction and user delight like I haven’t for long swaths of time. I’m building in the unorthodox way that serves me. I’m working the longest hours I have in 2 years.
And I love it.
My conversation yesterday reminded me just how pivotal this realization and mind shift was.
If you’ve been a pandemic founder - either starting your company or keeping it alive during this time - or if you’re setting off now to start something, I would say this:
Forget about what you think your investors want you to build or what you think you “should” be building. Listen to your gut. Your instinct. The thing that got you on this path in the first place. The thing keeping you on the narrow path instead of tumbling down the steep, rocky banks. The thing that powers your Future Distortion Field.
The very worst thing we can do as founders is get disconnected from our guts, our conviction, our vision. We may very well be wrong on all of it. But at least we’ll be sharp and true and that’s the only way to really have a shot at this thing.
Building, creation, innovation is first done in the minds of the builders, the creators, the innovators. To bring it to life, I’m even more convinced it can only be done on our terms. Whatever weird, unorthodox, winding path it takes.
Figure out those terms. Stay true to them.
That’s your power there.