So I’ve started a couple of companies before. Okay I say “started companies,” but I don’t really
mean either of those words. I just incorporated some ideas I had. I got business cards with my
name on them. I built a little website for interested people to sign up. One of them even earned
me a little play money. But in truth, I was just playing house.
When I walked in the door a month ago at Seed Hatchery, a startup accelerator in Memphis,
TN, I hadn’t discovered that yet. In my mind, I was kind of a badass. I had read more books
about entrepreneurship than anyone I knew. I had listened to every episode of This Week in
Startups. Hell I even suffered through a few episodes of This Week in Venture Capital. My
team had a GREAT idea that NOBODY ELSE was doing (or doing well, at least), and I had this
awesome, undiscovered savant of a co-founder and we were just going to waltz in there and
kick serious butt.
And day one was awesome! I was part of a special fraternity of entrepreneurs, and we were all
going to change the world. It was all champagne and roses. And I really felt that way. It was
wild man. Like livin’ on Haight in ’67.
Then the rest of the week felt something like this:
“Your idea sucks. No one is doing it because it sucks. You haven’t thought it through, you
haven’t done a bit of customer research, and it’s amazing that you didn’t have the good sense
to realize it before you walked in this door. You are only slightly less likely to fail because you’re
here than you were before you got here, which is to say that the likelihood of your failure just
went from 100% to something closer to 99.5%. Your pitch sucks. It’s too long. Where’s the
real pain? Are you solving a real problem? Your presentation isn’t that great either. Too many
words, not enough substance. You’re half as talented as my mother and you’re in Memphis-
freaking-Tennessee. They don’t give money to stupid people here. They don’t even give it
to smart people. You have 90, 89, 88, 87, 86 days to make a great product, and you haven’t
shown me anything that makes me believe that will happen yet…”
Thank you Drill Sergeant, may I have another?
It was an awakening, to say the least. Turns out everything I thought mattered didn’t, and
everything I thought was true wasn’t (except for the bit about the genius co-founder), and
everything I had learned wasn’t relevant anymore. By the end of that first week, I was huddled
in a corner with my rifle, crying, hoping the whole thing would just blow up and take me along
“Okay, forget everything we just said.”
But I kept coming back, because it was the most awesome thing I had ever done. Humbling,
yes, but awesome nonetheless. I was doing THIS. I was being brought to my knees HERE,
doing OUR THING. We didn’t answer to anyone but ourselves. We were keeping late nights
because we wanted to, not because some freaking busybody micro-manager in another
department needs her TPS reports by noon tomorrow. We were living the dream!
And we were getting better. Bit by bit. By week two the pitch had improved. We met mentors
who had been there and were willing to guide us through the trials and tribulations. We were
doing customer research and starting to turn our crappy little idea into something that just
might work. We had this amazing, awesome group of cohort companies, each with great
entrepreneurs and talented individuals, helping us along the way. We were making progress,
and we were doing it at a speed that my counterparts in “the real world” wouldn’t even be able
So three weeks in we said “okay, forget about everything we just said,” and changed just about
everything about our original idea. Three days (and about 12 hours of sleep) later, we pitched
that new idea to investors for the first time. We had come far enough to be able to say “yeah,
this one is going to be better, and it’s okay that we have to scrap a bunch of stuff to make it
work.” It was progress, and the investors noticed. It IS a better idea, and they knew it. And we
had survived. It wasn’t pretty, but we had survived. At least the first battle.
“You think Grendel’s a bear–you should meet the mother!”
Things aren’t any easier these days. Not at all. Sleep still comes in short bursts. The pressure
is building as we get closer and closer to demo day, and the expectations are higher because,
somehow, we’re infinitely better than we were when we walked through the door a month ago.
We’ve got a month to build a product that thousands of people will one day use. 31, 30, 29, 28
days. They pass before we even know what hit us.
But the false hope that got turned into realistic doubt in that first week is creeping into the
territory of realistic hope. And what we’re hearing in week five sounds a bit more like this:
“Your idea sucks, but you’ve got time to make it better. You haven’t thought it through, but
you’ve got the tools to do that now. You haven’t talked to your customers enough, but we’re
going to help you do that. And no matter what you think, we didn’t bet on your idea. The only
thing you brought with you was you, and you are what we bet on, not your stupid idea. You’ve
got a shot at this. Keep going.”
Here’s hoping that kind of talk continues…
Cliff McKinney is CEO of Work for Pie, a company that is changing the way software developers
get recruited and hired by changing the way they communicate with companies. He and his
team have conducted countless interviews with both developers and the companies that hire
them. You can find him on twitter at @cliffmckinney.