10 Myths about Startups

Mar 4 2013 by Leo Widrich | 7 Comments

Over the last two years of working at Buffer, I’ve come to learn that there are a few preconceived notions, stereotypes, clichés, and commonsense knowledge about startups that simply aren’t true.

I’d like to share some myths that I’ve discovered while working at a tech startup.

Myth 1: "You Need to Have Deadlines"

It’s hard to find companies, new or old, that don’t have deadlines. It’s in the business culture to set deadlines. And deadlines, on the surface, seem even more important in a newly launched Internet startup as a gauge of rapid progression.

And, honestly, in the beginning, we got sucked into thinking that deadlines were important to our success.

Here’s what we’d do: We’d set a deadline, work like crazy as the date arrives, and then, once the task is finally finished, we could relax.

As most of you probably already know, that never works when you’re trying to do something innovative and new; when you don’t have a manual to refer to on how to perform your tasks. And having deadlines didn’t make us happy either.

So, instead, we decided to apply the idea of pace. We help everyone on the team perform their work at a fast pace. We never try to build up to a big launch anymore.

At Balsamiq, we don’t have deadlines. Ever."

- Giacomo "Peldi" Guilizzoni, founder and CEO of Balsamiq Studios

Myth 2: "You Need Everybody in the Same Room"

This is may be the most obvious — and surprisingly still prevalent — myths about working at a company.

I have to admit that I was very skeptical about working in a remote team. My thinking went like this: "Yes, you can probably have a good team working remotely, but what about a great one?"

The truth is that you can build better remote teams than ever before, and most likely an even better one than having everyone in one place because you remove the geographical factor when you hire team members.

The people on the Buffer team live in Australia, U.S. and Europe.

I believe that embracing remote teams is one of the most important elements going forward.

"The technology to successfully run and manage remote teams has never been better."

- David Heinemeier Hansson, creator of Ruby on Rails and partner at 37signals

"WooThemes will always stay true to our remote roots."

- Adii Piernaar, co-founder of WooThemes

Myth 3: "You Don’t Need a Company Culture at the Start"

So, you’re a team of 4 or 6 or 10. The intuitive thinking in this situation is that company culture is a huge waste of time.

You’re small. You’re just starting out. What you need right now is users, marketing strategies, and beautiful code.

Who cares (or has time to think) about company culture?

Building a company culture from Day 1 was one of the most important elements in Buffer’s growth.

I remember that when I first got on board, Joel (the company’s founder) and I wrote a short document called "The personality of Buffer." This simple document helped us in staying aligned with our vision whenever new ideas or challenges came in.

Culture, I believe, should be solidly in place before any feature update, marketing campaign, significant code-writing, and so forth. It doesn’t have to be elaborate; it could be a short document like ours that guides you in the proper direction.

"If I could do it all over again, I would roll out our core values from Day 1."

- Tony Hsieh, chief executive of Zappos.com

Myth 4: "You Have to Work A Lot, Never Sleep and Feel Miserable"

One of the most common beliefs about the tech startup life is that it’s a miserable one.

You are spending day and night in the office, fueled by energy drinks and pizza, without anything else in your life going on.

We’ve found that discouraging crazy work hours and instead building up an incredibly solid daily routine is much more powerful.

What we do is in fact quite counterintuitive to the prevalent notion that work hours at a startup has to be long — we even ask people to go home even if they’re in a good flow!

You can’t sacrifice today for tomorrow.

"Happiness is not something you postpone for the future; it is something you design for the present."

- Jim Rohn, American entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker

Myth 5: "You Can’t Make Money Until You Become Big"

Making money in the early stages of a startup is often equated to "You’re doing it wrong."

The thinking goes: If you’re focusing on monetization at the start, then you’re not putting all of your attention on growth, which is the most important thing for a startup.

On the contrary, there’s nothing better for a startup than making money early. And it’s not just for the obvious reasons.

"Charging for something is the best way to truly validate your idea," is a line from Joel, Buffer’s founder.

"Making money > Raising money."

- Hiten Shah, co-founder of Crazy Egg and KISSmetrics

Myth 6: "You Need to Hurry!"

This misconception about startup companies is similar to the one about needing deadlines.

The idea is often this: You’re a small startup, you need to outrun the competition and everything needs to happen quickly and in a hurry.

That’s a recipe for burning out and for making huge mistakes.

At our company, we try many things to create a balance between being fast-paced and not rushing our work.

One of the best ways to accomplish this, I’ve found, is with deliberate reflection. Recently we introduced "Daily Pair Calls" where two members of the team have a daily call to reflect and discuss their previous days. It’s a great way to slow down in order to speed up.

"Breaking things in right requires a certain amount of patience. You don’t want to push a new engine too hard. You certainly can’t sit still. And the last thing you need is to stall on the interstate."

- Todd Razor, founder of Three Razor

Myth 7: "You Need to Focus on Hiring the Best People"

Here is another myth that definitely needs some explanation first.

We see that new CEO, VP or SVP being hired away from Google to Amazon, from Twitter to Facebook, and so on. And slowly a myth develops.

You can call it the "rockstar" myth.

The "rockstar" myth is the idea that the best engineers, marketers, designers, etc. are 10x better than us regular folks, and that these are the only people you need to be working with in a startup in order to ensure success.

But, at a startup, is it practical to focus your time and resources searching for that perfect "10x" programmer?

Wouldn’t you be missing out on working with many amazing people if you limited your options to that elusive "10x" designer that probably already works for someone else paying them much more than you can afford?

Instead, at our company, we evaluate candidates based on:

  1. Do they fit our company’s culture?
  2. Do we have a real need for the person’s talent and skills right now?

However, if we find someone who is an exceptional fit to our company’s culture, we will still hire the person, even if the position isn’t immediately obvious.

"Your goal shouldn’t be to buy players, your goal should be to buy wins."

- From the movie, Moneyball

Myth 8: "Be Miserable Now, So You Can Enjoy Your Life Later"

Another key misconception about working in a startup is that it involves sacrificing a few years of your life so you’re able to sell your company for a good profit and then live happily ever after.

You don’t need to sacrifice your health and happiness when you work at a startup.

A lot of our values and work at Buffer evolve around happiness. Everyone on the team has a daily call with another team member to discuss his or her daily improvement towards increased happiness, which I believe is important in maintaining a high level of productivity in our company.

"Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, you ought to set up a life you don’t need to escape from."

- Seth Godin, American entrepreneur, author and public speaker

Myth 9: "You Launch Lean, And Then You Can Build Things the Old Way"

So, you’ve read and understood Lean Startup. You decide you’re launching lean with your MVP until you find product market fit, doing all the customer development you can. And then you stop and revert to the "traditional" way of running a company when you’ve gotten a bit of a foothold in the industry.

That’s what we did near the beginning of our startup journey.

Instead, I think being lean should be a continual process, even well after you outgrow the title of "startup" and become a mega-huge company.

The most impressive case study of this is Eric Ries’s (the pioneer of Lean Startup) own company, IMVU. The company’s clear focus on lean throughout all processes is something we try to see as an amazing example to follow at our startup.

Myth 10: "You Can’t Share Numbers or Sensitive Details"

Another myth that we strongly aim to work against is that, as a startup, you have to keep your numbers under the hood.

After all, you’re a small company and if you share your innermost secrets, the competition will crush you!

We found the opposite to be true. We openly shared how we met each of our investors, how much revenue we are generating and have plans of turning into a full-fledged Open company over the next few months.

I believe that being transparent and sharing our progress has helped us gain goodwill with our users and also within the industry.

Your Turn

I’m sure that you could come up with lots more myths and misconceptions about startups.

Share your thoughts and experiences on the subject.

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About the Author

Leo Widrich is co-founder of Buffer, a better way to post to Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. He also blogs about insights on lifehacks, business and productivity on the Buffer blog. You can say “hello” to him on Twitter @leowid (he is a super nice guy).

7 Comments

RL

March 4th, 2013

A common myth I used to hear is that you’ll need a large capital to start a business. Experience proves otherwise though. I knew a couple who started their business with a modest capital, and the existence of crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter means you don’t even need startup funds at all.

Andrew Newey

March 4th, 2013

Leo, you had me at ditching deadlines for developing something innovative and new! I’ve gotta keep trucking now but will print and read this when my pace winds down…sometime soon.

Pete R.

March 5th, 2013

Great post as always Leo.

Although I agree with you on most points, myth 1 is not exactly correct for me personally. I need deadlines, so that I don’t go off course. I believe we as a startup perform best when we have limitations. That’s why we are able to innovate faster. Deadlines are great for innovation as it keeps us on our toes and pushes us to our limits. Although deadlines are great it only works if it is realistic. Something like launch a startup in 4 days, is n’t realistic and won’t help.

I’m not sure about others, but I find having deadlines help a lot. :)

PatrikJarl

March 5th, 2013

Thxs for a great article. I’ve heard a lot of these myths and they only stressed me out. Today I work in my own pace and I love it. Btw Buffer seems nice, I’ll try it out on my laptop for a while. ;)

Eddie

March 6th, 2013

Leo,
Thanks for sharing this. I am in a start up position right now and was trying to find some advice.
Stumbled upon this post and it answered a few of my question, or should I say doubts I had.
Glad I found this article.
Eddie

Jacob Gube

March 7th, 2013

@Eddie: Eddie, I know you addressed your comment to Leo, but I want to chime in and say that that’s such a wonderful thing! If Leo’s article gets even 1 person inspired and get moving towards finally taking a leap and pursuing his or her idea, then I think Leo has done a great service to the community. I wish you the best with your startup Eddie.

Hujšanje

March 8th, 2013

I must say, that one most miss used concept is to hurry too much. I have this problem and all of my colleges have it. Thank you for the list of “possible mistakes”

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