It took longer than usual for me to get my thoughts together about last month’s ExitEvent Startup Social. Usually, I’ve got the column written before the hangover truly takes hold, but this month was different.
A lot happened at December’s Social, and I had this mix of three different topics running through my head. I actually wrote up one of them and rejected that column about five minutes before I published it, which worked, because I was angry, and those columns, while they stir shit up, are rarely helpful.
So for the record: You know who you are. You know what you did. Dick move.
The main takeaway from the December 16th American Undergound at Main Startup Social was a 2013 peak in first-time attendees. Throughout the year, there was a trend of new founders either learning about ExitEvent for the first time or finally dropping any pretense about being too busy to come mix with their peers for a couple hours or, and this is actually the least common case, starting a new company and looking to dive in.
I like this trend. Every time I see fresh faces mixed in with the Houghtons and Averys and Boggses and Cotters, I feel good about the direction of the startup scene here and the role ExitEvent is playing in it. I also like that they keep coming back.
Anyway, the most popular trend of that particular night was me being asked over and over again what I think is going to happen in startup in 2014, not just in the Triangle, but overall, and at every level from seed to exit.
I mean, that wasn’t one single question – it’s sort of an aggregate of all the questions.
The problem is, this is like answering, “How was your 2013?” You know, I ran a lot, I wrote some stuff, I worked hard, I played paintball for the first time.
Which was surprisingly awesome.
But none of that is going to give you the big picture. If you read everything I wrote last year (and if you did, let me know, I owe you a smoothie or something), you still probably wouldn’t have the big picture of what I thought about startup in 2013, so I don’t see myself being able to truly distill what I see happening in startup in 2014 into a few sentences or even 500 words.
So I’m going to give you my first impression of startup 2014 based on all the first impressions I got from all those new founders I met in 2013.
Those First Impressions Are Going To Have To Be a Lot Stronger
I’m not specifically pointing to a vibe I’m getting off any of the new founders I’m meeting, but I’ll tell you this, I am meeting a ton of them. For the last three years or so, there’s been nothing but growth in new startups coming online, and this is necessary, expected, and we should all be grateful for it.
What I’m saying is I think we’ve hit the point of saturation, where it’s no longer enough to just have an idea, or a prototype, or even a fully-formed product with revenue. As barriers to entry have come down, expectations have gone up. The investors, the accelerators, the grant awards, the contests, the press — as a whole, they’ve all upped their definition of what it means to be a viable startup.
There’s a word you’re going to hear over and over again in 2014. It’s not a new word, I’m just saying by the end of 2014 you’re going to be as sick of this word as you are today of “pivot” or “MVP” or “Miley.”
That Word is Traction
Somewhere along the 2012/2013 path, “hustle” gained acceptance as a positive buzzword. I get this. You have to hustle, every minute of every day, and if you’re not hustling, you’re failing. If you take a day off, your competition won’t, and they’ll be that much farther ahead of you.
I’d even agree that I was a hustler, but I’d immediately suggest there’s a better word for it, and I don’t really care what that word is. I don’t spend that much time thinking about my work ethic, but I know I don’t want to be known as a hustler any more than I want to be known as a “strategic thinker” or “results-oriented leader.”
Hustling != Traction
Startup isn’t a sprint, but again, somewhere in the last year or so, this sort-of “work harder not smarter” ethos seeped its way into the startup zeitgeist. And since most of these harder-not-smarter analogies come in a sports context, let me use sports to drive my point home.
When I ask about or read about or hear about a startup, sometimes it seems like all I hear about is what would, in a sports matchup, be classified as intangibles — everything from the quality of the coaching to the conditions of the stadium.
But what kind of product are you putting out there on the field? And are you filling the seats? Are they just the cheap seats or the luxury boxes too? Are people only showing up on Free Nachos Night? Are they buying the foam fingers and the overpriced T-shirts and the ten-dollar beers?
In 2014, I don’t think it’s going to matter so much whether a startup is chasing down a Clean crowd sourced, Bitcoin-funded wearable that uses gamification to merge the Internet of Things with the Quantified Self or really good cupcakes.
I think what’s going to matter is how many are being sold, how often, to whom, and whether that’s sustainable.
But then, that’s just me. And as an entrepreneur, I still can’t help but ignore the very irony that bled through my fingers to type the description of the former and wonder whether or not something like that might just be crazy enough to work.
I’m just saying I better have the exit strategy nailed before I waste too much time on it.