Raw thoughts from Alex Dong

Four myths about startup

Once in a while, I would read an article and found myself keeps nodding my head. Alex Payne’s recent post A letter to a young programmer is such a gem. For quite a while, I have wanted to write about the four common myths about startup. Alex has managed to cover all of them. So here is my attempt to tell the same story from my own perspective.

1. Startup means working on brand new things. Actually the startup world is full of people moving in herds. Majority of the times you will be working on projects that are applying existing knowledge to solve new problems. People who are doing never-seen-before stuff might have problems to get attractions. Sure you have watched this video Pinterest’s Ben gave at YC Startup School 2012?

Startups are portrayed as an exciting, risky, even subversive alternative to traditional corporate work. … the culture of most startups is blandly uniform, right down to a style of dress and grooming that helps “startup guys” – and all too often are they guys – stay with their herd

2. Working for startups are glamorous and always fun. . One advice I often give to job seekers is to look for the words a job posting uses. If there are an excessive usage of “fun”, “exciting”, be careful. These could be cheap tricks like feeding baby candies.

When the company-provided keg runs dry, the free lunches are making you fat, and playing the Xbox in the break room is no longer as fun as it used to be, what then? When you find that you now report to a politicking middle manager and not the inspiring CEO who interviewed you, will you still want to be there? Is a supposedly novel working environment enough to sustain you? When everywhere you might consider working looks more or less the same, is the novelty even there?

3. If you follow the lean methodology, you’ll win. People say that my eyes start to roll over when I hear “lean”, “MVP” or “agile”. It is not that I don’t think these are right ideas. Don’t get me wrong. I do believe that it’s a sin to expand the team if you haven’t figured out your business model, user acquisition channel and costs yet. However, there are so much more than simply reparaphrasing the sentences in “Lean Startup” or “4-steps to Epiphany”. Startup is essentially a walk in the dark. You have to feel your ways and use your own judgement a lot. And no surprisingly the judgements get honed only when you make mistakes. Quite often, the more painful it hurts, the better you learned. Reading 10 books wouldn’t help a bit because you’re always interpretating the text from the old perspective.

Startups have been systematized, mythologized, culturally and socially de-risked; reduced down to formulas and recipes. Yet, there is no enduring formula for creativity and rebellion. When we attempt to factory farm innovation we breed out the very thing we’re trying raise: the creative destruction that stokes and re-stokes the fire of capitalism.

4. Startup means working your ass off and say goodbye to personal life. Bragging of “macho heroics” of pulling a all-nightter will only make one look naive. I’ll still do it if the server goes down or there are some real deadlines I have to make. But I no longer do it because it makes me feel good. I’ve done plenty of those 36-hour non-stop coding thing and now looking back, I feel sorry for my younger self.

Startups appeal to a desire for daring that’s lost in many forms of modern work, and we’re told stories of the rewards waiting when personal lives are sacrificed on the altar of the launch schedule.

Similarily, if you meet me on the street and ask “are you busy”, I will be very hesitated to say I am. Being busy is the same way to admit that I fail to use my judgement to prioritize things, or I am unable to leverage the resources I have, or I seriously underestimate the work required, or I didn’t code things up properly that I haven’t been caught off guard by some accidents, or, worst of all, I forgot about the whole point of why I started companies.

I’ve seen firsthand the damage that startups can do to relationships. I’ve watched marriages and friendships fall apart, seen children and partners pushed aside, and failed those in my life in all kinds of ways when work came to the fore. I’ve listened as people who are the very picture of startup success – visible in the press and social media, headlining conferences, forever founding and exiting – have confided their utter loneliness despite being seemingly at the social center of the entrepreneurial community.

I’ve been working 14 years now. Half of which I worked for corporates, half I built startups. Having said all these, I’d like to say that I enjoy working on startups because it’s the best way to understand and improve oneself. When there is no room for execuses, feedback loops start to run faster and one benefits the most. It’s still the most rewarding experience, as long as we get the expectations right.