Stop Taking Paper Advice and Start Thinking About Your Exit - 1

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Stop Taking Paper Advice and Start Thinking About Your Exit - 1
As a startup founder, you're going to get inundated with advice for building and running your company. It's inevitable. You'll be able to tune out 90% of it, but it's going to seep in, whether it's from your advisors, your peers, or your grandmother.

Everyone and their brother knows how to build and run a successful startup. They just don't make you aware of this until you've actually started your own.

A good chunk of this advice, and again, you'll tune a lot of this out, is the stuff you're going to pick up casually, mostly by way of expert articles by thought leaders and mostly via websites like this one you're reading right now. Guilty. You'll also get a trickle of it from books, if you're into that sort of thing, other forms of media like television and movies (although this is the worst possible advice ever), and even random conversations with anyone from other entrepreneurs to, well, your grandmother.

I should point out that this casual advice stands in stark contrast to formal advice, and that's advice you seek out from actual experts in your field or those who have done roughly the same thing you want to do and have had at least a modicum of success at it. This is usually good advice, and you should probably take it.

Not that the casual advice is necessarily bad, mind you, it's just likely not meant for you. It is, by its very definition, generic. It's meant to be broad in scope with a wide target, and that inherently keeps it from being very meaningful to you, with your company, in your market, at your point on your timeline.

This is why this advice usually sounds creepily familiar:

  • Work hard, hustle, be aggressive.
  • Build for the customer first and the investment will come.
  • Talk to everyone who will listen.
  • If it isn't disruptive, no one will buy it.
  • Don't get caught up in anything that takes you away from building/selling your product.
  • Don't focus on the exit, your goal is to change the world.

    All of that sound familiar? It should.

    Again, none of this is bad advice. In fact, I agree with all of it to a certain extent. But it's all good advice on paper. It works in theory, in almost every single situation (which is why it seems so valuable), but it has nothing to do with your situation.

    This column could be about any one of those paper nuggets, but I'm going to focus on that last one, specifically because I just read yet another article about how successful companies don't focus on the exit -- and I nearly lost my mind.

    So let me first start by disclaiming. Yes, you shouldn't be building a company based solely on flipping it in the shortest possible period, devoid of passion, with no concern as to the quality of the product, the satisfaction of the customers, or the futures of the employees.

    But who the hell does this?

    I've spoken to this before, specifically when it became trendy to criticize all startup-related events because there are a few individuals out there posing as entrepreneurs and just floating from event to event with a half-baked idea and a hoodie.

    I get that, but to paint all startup-related events as timesucks and call that advice will actually do more harm than good, because it will keep founders away from the network, building their Goldberg machines in complete isolation in the name of entrepreneurial purity.

    So to come back to exits, I rarely focus on the exit of whatever startup I happen to be founding or otherwise have stake in, but I do think about it, and you better believe I spend a healthy amount of time thinking about it before I launch the company or otherwise make a huge commitment to it.

    Why? Because I'm a damn entrepreneur. If my company looks exactly the same six months from now as it does today, I've failed. I'm not in this to open a corner store and ride the macroeconomics of whatever industry I'm in to a fruitful life and an above average retirement. I think about the exit because I want to change the world, and I have enough (just enough) humility to have figured out that at some point my skills aren't going to be enough to get it done.

    I'm not Alan Mulally or John Chambers or even Steve Freaking Jobs, nor do I want to be.

    Here's the thing. Shitty entrepreneurs rarely get past the idea stage. Good ones do, and they get traction and backing to take them to the next level.

    At that point, and here's where I will agree with the purist-journeyists, there are only four options in that company's future -- go public, get bought, stay private forever, or fail. And if I ask you where you're headed and your answer doesn't include thoughtful consideration for three of those options, I can tell you when it comes to making big, company-changing decisions in the near-and-forever future, you're ultimately headed for that fourth option.

    Look, I don't wake up every day and think: "Okay, what can I do today to make my startup more attractive to Google?" But I do think about it, and I should, or when the time comes to take that big next step, I'm going make cavalier decisions that will lead to the exact results that "thinking about my exit" will supposedly wrought.