I'm the CEO of a Tech Company, And Building a Startup Is Nothing Like the Media Portrays It

The tech industry is a BS machine.
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Publish date:
October 11, 2016
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careers, stem, startups

I know my experience isn't the be-all, end-all of what building a tech startup is like. In some ways it's unusual: I'm married to my cofounder. I'm a female CEO. We had savings and the skills to get an initial product off the ground, so we weren't desperate for funding straight out of the gate.

But having been a part of the startup world for a while, I've learned a few surprising things.

The media likes to tell startup stories that go like this: A (20-year-old, Ivy League, male, hoodie-wearing) protagonist is a genius (and also kind of a jerk) who independently knows exactly what thing will take off. He spends a few days building a prototype. Others are haters at first. Product blows up overnight. Money rains from the sky.

The reality is...not that.

Investment

The way that raising money is portrayed is particularly obnoxious. You'd think investors were shooting $1M checks from T-shirt cannons.

In real life, investment is very hard to get, and the process is incredibly demoralizing. It's a numbers game, where you have to take dozens, maybe hundreds, of pitch meetings. The power imbalance at the table is often palpable. And it usually takes a year of this (one person working full-time) to raise a round of funding.

Still, it's not guaranteed you'll be successful. I have friends who've spent the last few years chasing one $10,000 check at a time just to keep their cofounders housed and fed.

It's hard to get meetings with serious, high-profile investors unless you've already seriously validated yourself (e.g., have a polished product with millions of users). But you know who is likely to take your meeting? The egomaniacs.

I once met with a man who started out by slamming another female founder for not going to dinner with him because "she was afraid it was a date." He went on and on about what an idiot she was, then segued into how much he hated my company name. He also had a habit of reprimanding me for not laughing at his jokes. I knew within five minutes that this meeting was not going anywhere. (And also that he'd definitely asked the other CEO out as a date.) A guy like this doesn't get into investing to actually invest; waving money around makes him feel like King Of All The Land.

Investors get to have opinions that matter. After pitching a big group once, I was relayed the feedback that I was "too sweet." I later asked a group of male founder friends if they'd ever been asked to change their personalities. They hadn't. Still, I'm convinced this isn't solidly a sexism problem as much as the icky reality of a small, homogeneous group making decisions together about what is right and good and worthy.

Another thing that isn't obvious is if you're lucky to raise a whole lot of money, what you're left with is very little ownership of your company and a ton of pressure on you. At this point, you're basically an employee of your investors. They can, for instance, fire you if you don't do what they want. You're expected to work tirelessly to make them a big return.

So the decision to raise money, how much to raise, and who to raise it from = hard and complicated.

Lies

If you've ever wondered why we still don't have flying cars or sentient humanoid butlers despite shrieking hype about how "close we are" from the tech industry year after year, it's because the tech industry is a BS machine.

I've had people try to justify this to me by saying they're selling their "vision" (rather than actual knowledge, progress, or product). "People *want* to be impressed and amazed, not brought down by disclaimers and timelines!"

This becomes especially interesting now that crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter have become popular, because it isn't just investors' money to lose. Do any amount of googling, and you'll find dozens of stories about startup founders making promises on Kickstarter alongside a convincing video, taking people's money, getting big press coverage for the product they're "just about finished building," and then disappearing forever.

It's a gross cycle where lies beget lies. It almost becomes an arms race because once the press has covered a dozen stories about an impressive "soon-to-be-released" technology, real products seem lame by comparison and can't get coverage.

And the lies don't end with the product. Founders lie about how many users they have. I know of one who made up testimonials. When you're in performance mode talking about your startup, big numbers become so laissez-faire. I know a guy who added an extra zero in a pitch without even realizing it. ("Sure, yeah, we're projected to make X money this year!")

Product

Building a product isn't just plain hard (and expensive if you/your cofounders can't design and code it yourself). Not only does everything take longer to build than you think it should (much longer — so long), it's also a crapshoot.

You think to yourself: I'm my own customer! I'm building this app for myself! I know exactly what it should be like.

But the thing is you just don't.

Before we launched PhotoFeeler, we spent countless hours plotting it all out to perfection. But as soon as other people started using our web app, it was obvious no one could figure out how to use it. People were awkwardly clicking on the wrong things! Emailing us like, "Is my test started now or what?"

This is why stories about the lone genius who created a perfect product on his first try are so laughable. That's not how great products are made. The way it's actually done: You make something (anything!), have some people try it, and then change it according to the feedback. And it never really ends. I mean, every time we add a new feature, there's that chance people will hate it or not understand how to use it. So we only launch it to half our users and measure drop-off times, etc.

Growth

Because of misinformation à la The Social Network, people have this idea that startup growth is somehow instantaneous.

Thing is, to the individual who discovered an app today, it might seem like that app is brand new. (In some cases, the copy/press may even be manipulating you to think that.) But that's almost never true. Even Facebook — the company that grew faster than almost any other — took years to reach a mass audience.

My cofounder and I have relatives who treat us, after three years, as if we failed and better just wrap it up already. Because we're not a household name by now, we must be washed up, right? Truth is, it takes an average of seven to eight years for a startup to go from launch to sale/IPO. And that number only includes the big success stories!

I know of a founder who stopped seeing his family because of interactions like this.

In my experience, friends get cut out even faster. As soon as one of my startup friends' companies is going through some hardship or growth is slower than usual, they're unreachable. You go to mixers where everyone's "killing it," even when they're not. Even when no one is. When the norm is lying and glamorizing everything and keeping up appearances, even your friends have to be kept at arm's length.

There's a lot I dislike about startup culture and the popular narratives in the media — no surprise there. But even despite its glaring flaws, I know I fit here. I'm good at making something from nothing, being scrappy, getting stuff done. And I genuinely like to work most of the time. As for the downsides, for now, I can only "be the change" and hope for the best.

Every once in a while, I come across someone (a teacher, an artist, a baker, a butcher, a candlestick maker...) who says they wish they'd gotten into tech or started a startup, presumably because the money would have been so much more solid. To them, I just want to say: You're not a sucker for having followed your own passion. You're not missing out. Building a startup is just a different kind of job: messy, hard, awkward, a grind, high, and low, just like anything else.