An overnight success takes about fifteen years

I just stumbled across that quote (as far as I can tell, it’s by H. Jackson Brown in Life’s Little Instruction Book) just a few moments ago and I think it just rings true. I’ve gotten to know many new entrepreneurs (and some who’ve been in the ‘game’ for a longer time) and I have the feeling, they want to become an entrepreneur so they can say that they’re an entrepreneur. And a CEO. People see the allure of start-up life, they see the fancy part. They see cocktail rounds after your second big financing round, where you hobnob with the ‘big guys’ from the old economy telling them how to do things better. They see the cool networking events, where you meet fellow entrepreneurs where you speculate on the next big thing and make that next big thing happen within a week. They see founders who are speakers at big conferences a year after they started their company.

People see the glitter, they don’t see the hard work behind the glitter. Sure, being an entrepreneur has its advantages. Sure you can go network and meet like-minded folks. You’re your own boss. And you might be able to sell the company after a few years. But for each big exit that you read about in websites or blogs, there will be 10 other companies working on similar things and other 100 companies that have failed. And it takes time (and a lot of endurance) to make a start-up work. That “overnight success” is like the visible part of the iceberg. And the work that you put in, that’s all below the surface and most people will never see it.

Being an entrepreneur shouldn’t be your priority. Making an awesome product and developing your company should be your main priority. (Does that make sense?) It’s like you only want to become the tip of the iceberg. Floating around. The problem is, if it melts, it’s gone. On the other hand, if you’re an iceberg and the top melts off, it might always return some other time.

I’ve met many awesome start-ups that hardly go to any networking events. They’re working on their code on a Friday night, not caring that there is the 94th start-up networking event of the year in the city. To some of these people I’ve talked for hours and hours and we’ve discussed ideas and strategies in-depth and finding ways where we can help each other. Perhaps creating strategic partnerships and whatnot. But these things don’t happen at cocktail networking rounds. Sure, you can talk to a lot of people at these types of events – and some of these people will be big shots. But what does that help if your product is at best ‘just ok’? There seems to be this notion that – if a product is ok and you told 1.000 people about it, one of these people is bound to like it and give it the 500.000 EUR.

I see many start-ups being touted as “successful” because they received a lot of money or have X employees. But in my opinion: The amount of funding you received says very little about how good your product is. The number of employees even less so. My main indicators (or the questions I ask) are mostly: “Does it have a revenue stream? Can it survive based on its own revenue? Does it make money yet? Does it give added value to people? Will people continue using it? Is it well positioned in the market or a niche? Is the company culture sustainable as well? (i.e. are people happy and want to continue working there?)”

That’s why I see Facebook as a success (they’ve turned profitable and will possibly hold their fort for now… I don’t care about external investor “expectations” and stock prices), I see Twitter as a mixed bag (they do awesome things and are developing interesting business models / revenue streams), while I don’t see Pinterest as a success (yet). Sure they have a lot of users and they generate lots of buzz – but what does that help? How will they attract clients? And once they make money – what happens when company start suing them because they use pictures on their website which they don’t own? Will normal users be put off by this? Will Pinterest become a big e-commerce magazine?

You should focus on your product, on your start-up. Make it as awesome as possible. Make it possible to survive on the revenue stream / cash flow. The big payout / exit might come or might not. But that shouldn’t be the reason you’re in the game.

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