So I came across yet another article on Hacker News running a post-mortem on a failed startup. Right off the bat it asserts:
Entrepreneurs often write about what’s going right, but too rarely write about what’s gone wrong.
I’m sure there was a point in tech bubble history when this was true. But that point was a long time ago. Startup guys write about what went wrong all the damn time. I am pretty sure if I started a startup pitched as a platform for other startups to explain why they tanked, I would get VC money for it, especially if I could get a good deal on
And I don’t want to pick on the author of this particular article. He’s a solid enough writer, his startup looks genuinely interesting rather than stupid, and hey, he sure went above and beyond in mistake-making. (“And so I learned that we hadn’t been paying payroll taxes for almost three years.” Oopsie!) But these articles are becoming post hoc navel-gazing bemoaning subsets of the same problems, over and over. They’re Chinese-American takeout menus of fail: I’ll have the “hired too many people soon” and “didn’t scale fast enough” from Column A, “poor communication” and “ill-defined cofounder roles” from Column B, and some extra sweet and sour sauce.
And this makes this soul-baring part of the performance, like consciously dressing down and overpaying for loft space. They’re written for potential investors and employees who hang around sites like Hacker News. They’re spin. Bob’s heart-rending tale of how he spent ten months with no income so he could avoid laying off his last three employees as long as possible, eventually living under his office desk and subsisting entirely on chocolate chai and teriyaki jerky, ensures you remember him as a naïve but sincere and selfless CEO who gave his all and shared his mistakes with the world. Without this bracing splash of sincerity aftershave, you might instead remember Bob as a twenty-two year old who burned through $7M of VC money creating an iOS app that sends the word “Meh” to selected friends on your contact list. (“We see an immense upside potential vis a vis the growing Irony as a Service (IaaS) market.”)
Ultimately, most startups in the current tech boom are going to fail for one of three reasons:
- The core idea of the company isn’t that good. Maybe it’s Pets.com, or Color. And if you’re pitching your startup as “like X for Y”—like Facebook for geek girls! like Instagram but only for cat pictures!—you have a problem.
- The core idea won’t generate more income than outcome before you run out of money. Why, yes, everyone loved StoreYourHugeFilesforFree.com, but it turns out you can’t make it up in volume after all.
- Your team is collectively not experienced enough to see mistakes before they kill you.
Your idea wasn’t that good, you didn’t have the capital, or you didn’t have the experience. That’s 99% of why all businesses fail. Yet those reasons are almost never in “Why My Startup Failed” articles except as hidden subtext. The stories Silicon Valley most likes to hear about itself are stories about why outliers aren’t outliers—why anyone can move right out of college into founding the new Facebook or Google. And so when we fail, we tell ourselves stories that don’t disrupt that myth. It’s absolute heresy to suggest that real world experience often outweighs youthful energy and a degree from Stanford, but most of the “mistakes you should never make” aren’t mistakes someone with the appropriate work experience would have made.
If your startup fails and it helps you to write about it, write about it. But don’t write about it because you want to prove to the world and future investors that you’re a cool guy after all. Write about it brutally honestly. Get it out of your system. Then don’t put it online. We love you, but we’ve heard it already. Next time hire an accountant.