Lessons from Not Starting a Startup
- Business, Anecdotes
It has now been 3 months since I was laid off and first tried becoming an entrepreneur. I wasn't expecting to be successful due to the statistics, but what I did not expect was to not have started anything at all.
Let's review what happened.
Learning the theory
The first thing that I did was to follow courses about startups and find testimonies of various entrepreneurs. On this regard, most resources I found were of pretty bad quality, including the related courses from the counseling service included in my previous job's severance package. (Protip: Don't ask someone that has never started a business to teach about starting a business.)
Fortunately, I was lucky enough to discover an extremely-high quality MOOC (massive open online course) by the HEC Montréal business school on the SynOpp approach to entrepreneurship, which I highly recommend to those interested that understand French. The professor of this course, Claude Ananou, shared interviews he made with many entrepreneurs (including many famous investors from the television show Dragon's Den) and used his own experience in entrepreneurship to build it.
Here are some of the most important points that I personally learned:
- Business plans attempt to put predictability in an unpredictable activity, and are a hindrance to entrepreneurs as they prevent flexibility. They should only be used as a last resort when seeking funds from banks requiring one, and even then they should not be followed.
- The worst case scenario that can happen to a business is complete failure and bankruptcy. All entrepreneurs should expect it and plan accordingly, as only a minority are successful. Planning for a better pessimistic scenario is never realistic.
- Successful entrepreneurs are those that have been able to fulfill people's desired needs, or fulfill them better than the competition.
- Needs are complex, and can usually be divided into micro-needs with various levels of importance and priorities. Attempting such an activity for a specific market can be very useful when designing a product or service.
There were many other interesting topics in this course as well, but those points are the ones I was not familiar with already.
Armed with important new knowledge, it was time to put it to the test...
A tough first step
After determining how much I was willing to invest in both time and money, I thought it would be a great idea to start with setting up a new legal entity as soon as possible, including hiring some marketing people to help me pick a good name and logo for its branding.
To my surprise, costs were about 10 times higher than what I expected on both the legal and marketing fronts. It was so bad that I even considered having my startup about automating the processes of these industries through artificial intelligence despite having zero expertise in them.
Because of this, I quickly came to the realization that hiring a good marketing consultant was way too expensive for this early in the process, which is a shame because a company's branding is extremely difficult to change later.
That's when I hit my first roadblock. I needed an idea I could believe in. I didn't really know what I wanted to do other that I wanted to do something that was:
- Fun for me to realize
- Valuable to others
- Economically feasible and viable
Unfortunately, almost all of the ideas I had ended up violating one of these requirements. Working as a security consultant? My professional experience cannot prove my expertise in this field yet. Launching a niche video game store tolerant of adult themes? Turns out I would need to compete with a lot of major competitors in the porn industry I didn't even knew existed. Producing a serious game to help police investigations? I couldn't figure out an example with a practical application. Researching and developing an application to detect security vulnerabilities in software? Sounds great, but I think the idea is still a little bit premature given the current state of machine learning technology.
I eventually came to the conclusion that in order to find aspiration, opportunities and potential business partners, I needed to go out and meet random people in various businesses to make contacts and have lengthy discussions with them in order to escape this vicious cycle.
Energy and motivation
Unfortunately, about two weeks after starting my journey, a second roadblock appeared. I caught a particularly nasty cold that practically knocked me out for weeks, and just as I was starting to get better, I caught another one that was actually worse and evolved into a bronchitis. As of this writing, I am still sick, although I have been able to resume normal activities since a week and a half ago.
I'm not someone that naturally has a lot of energy to spare, and my sickness took most of it. It even completely messed up my sleep schedule, making it impossible to meet new people as I was waking up at late hours.
The result? An almost complete standstill for about 2 months. The only thing I could do was to slowly try to learn some new stuff or try thinking of new ideas. While I didn't lose my motivation, it was rather depressing and did make me lose interest in managing my time properly.
Probably the only good thing that will come up of this lengthy incident is that I learned that I need to consider the risk of sickness for any entrepreneurship project. I can't even think how bad things would have turned out if I had commitments or deadlines during that time.
A surprise comeback
As I was finally recovering, some of my old coworkers contacted me to see if I was interested working again with my previous employer, since they apparently realized they acted too hastily in applying a business strategy born out of a recent merger. When I mentioned that I wasn't rejecting the idea since nothing tangible happened on my side yet, they soon made me a really good offer.
I was put into a horrible dilemma. On one hand, I have not been able to invest sufficient time into any entrepreneurship project to determine if it really was a good career choice for me, and would put most of my future efforts on hold. On the other hand, there was no telling how long it would take until the missing pieces would finally fall together, and nothing to show for it in the meantime except for a dwindling bank account balance.
After a throughout analysis, I have decided to accept the offer. The main reason I did was because I reached a point where actions were necessary over reflection, and that I could still grow my network to be ready for a potential future project while having a full time job, just more slowly.
Did I pick the right choice? To be honest, I don't think I did. What I picked was the safe choice, but it is one that I believe will help me get back on track mentally and maximize my chances of success overall, as long as I continue investing minimal efforts during my free time. Worst case scenario, I can always reverse my decision if it turns out this compromise is not working out.
After all, my goal is not to start a business at any cost, but long-term happiness.
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