In tech start-ups, there are no tricks to success

I love this essay from Paul Graham of Y Combinator. It’s chock full of truths, as Paul’s essays typically are, and I encourage you read the whole thing. Here’s one of my favorite passages:

It’s not surprising that after being trained for their whole lives to play such games, young founders’ first impulse on starting a startup is to try to figure out the tricks for winning at this new game. Since fundraising appears to be the measure of success for startups (another classic noob mistake), they always want to know what the tricks are for convincing investors. We tell them the best way to convince investors is to make a startup that’s actually doing well, meaning growing fast, and then simply tell investors so. Then they want to know what the tricks are for growing fast. And we have to tell them the best way to do that is simply to make something people want.

So many of the conversations YC partners have with young founders begin with the founder asking “How do we…” and the partner replying “Just…”

Why do the founders always make things so complicated? The reason, I realized, is that they’re looking for the trick.

What is that trick?

So this is the third counterintuitive thing to remember about startups: starting a startup is where gaming the system stops working. Gaming the system may continue to work if you go to work for a big company. Depending on how broken the company is, you can succeed by sucking up to the right people, giving the impression of productivity, and so on. [2] But that doesn’t work with startups. There is no boss to trick, only users, and all users care about is whether your product does what they want. Startups are as impersonal as physics. You have to make something people want, and you prosper only to the extent you do.

This rings true. Doing a start-up is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my admittedly short 34 years.

School was easy. Read, study, memorize a little, do a few practice questions — as long as you’re willing to put in the time, and as long as you had the raw materials, doing well in school was relatively a sure-thing. Something you can almost count on; it just depends on how much you want to put into it.

Now that my job is to evaluate people’s performance, I’ve also come to realize how easy it is to be a valued employee too, assuming the company is doing reasonably well. All you really need is competence and a good attitude, and just like school, how well you do depends on how much effort you’re willing to put in. This is a mindset that served me well before, in investment banking, management consulting and then product marketing.

Who wouldn’t want a team player who adds to the team?

Paul calls this a “game” and “playing tricks,” which has negative connotations; but it does not have to be so. The idea is that there are rules to succeeding in these environments, and as long as you know those rules, it’s up to you on how hard you want to work to succeed. Put in the hours and you’ll make it. Coast and you won’t, or not as much anyway.

Start-ups break this equation. There is no formula. You could work like a dog and the market won’t give a damn if you’re not making something people really want. In the consumer tech space, to the point where users are willing to advocate your product to their friends.

It’s both depressing and exhilarating at the same time.

Depressing because during those inevitable periods of failure, you doubt yourself and wonder whether you have what it takes to succeed. Whether you were better off climbing the ranks of the corporate ladder.

Exhilarating because, shit, this is what life is all about. It’s about taking that shot, to sweet success or to the death. Even if you do die, at least you were alive, and at least you will have a good story to tell and fewer regrets.

And if you do happen to be the lucky few to succeed…whoosh! Is there any better feeling? Knowing you helped create something valuable with your bare hands, no games required?

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