To startup or not to startup? This is the million-dollar question that I asked myself every couple of weeks through my 20s. How do I decide? What are the criteria? Will the idea be good enough? Am I good enough? Will I be able to execute? So many questions and no answers. Every day potential entrepreneurs wake up feeling I am not good enough. Building confidence to take that plunge is tough. Here’s a little insight into my journey.
In the competitive job market of India, a job in the field of your study after graduation is a privilege. I had an internship in the final semester of college and no job lined up. I wanted to work at a startup. My definition of a startup was a company that had few employees. I got an offer from a firm that had under 20 employees in 2011. The highlight of my job was I got to work with computers and didn’t have to badge in and out.
My company was building a product that needed someone to go and showcase the product. I volunteered. I learned later that I had assumed the role of a part-time sales engineer. I once told the customer, “You should understand our product. It’s not our fault. You are at fault." I was proud of what I had said and done. In reality, I had failed. All the effort of my team and myself over the past few months to get the product to a point to showcase it felt wasted. I’m grateful to my company for giving me space to learn a lesson and not firing me for it. In a close-knit team, it’s heartbreaking to see your work not convert into revenue. I later learned that this was the hard reality of sales.
I arrived in Silicon Valley in early 2013 to study Software Engineering. I felt that I could assemble a computer gathering parts from companies on the US-101. It is a well-funded state-of-the-art technology playground. A tiny fraction of companies become household names worldwide. Most of them either die in oblivion or get acquired. The other big thing for computer programmers here is a hackathon, a marathon of hacking.
Put a group of technologists for 12-24 hours and feed them pizza. You lose sleep, consume sugar, caffeine, and carbs. You fuse your brain with the computers to build interesting things. It's the closest to the singularity you can get to. I built an app to control your music player with your brain waves (mood). I met my future co-founder building a party assistant to show a dancing skeleton of you to the attendees. I was able to control a computer to do interesting things. This led me to my first job in the USA.
Click-clack-click-clack on the keyboard in front of a computer was a large part of my job. I found myself immersed in writing code for customers I would never see in my life but they paid money to my company. That money after exchanging hands would result in me getting paid. This in turn would let me pay my student loans and bills. A big part of my learning was how was potential customer value turned into revenue for the company. This led me to challenge myself a step further.
Starting a company was not an overnight decision. I needed confidence and fallback options played out in my head. First, I had the confidence to find a job if the startup didn’t work out. I also needed to sustain myself for a certain time frame without a salary. I had never built a new product and sold it to customers. I did not understand the market of my company (automotive technology). I had no experience in hiring and managing people. I also had no idea how to fundraise. To do something outside your comfort zone, you need to understand your comfort zone well. With this information, I clarified the risk I was taking with my family and co-founders. A shared understanding of your personal and professional risks with your founding team is crucial. This helps make decisions when conditions are not favorable. I was fortunate to build that trust early and it serves me well to this day.
Building confidence to take on something ambitious is an iteration. You start with none, take action and then you get some. Confidence is not something you have when you are doing something for the first time. The big hairy ambitious goals that we strive for are all done for the first time. Each time you take a small step you get the confidence to do it better. The key is to build on your prior confidence and keep going for your ambitious goals.
What about starting a company? Ask yourself the following questions
How do you sell a product to someone else?
How does your favorite company make money?
What's your process to build something that will make money?
It's important to assess facts on your own. Every person associated to a startup is taking some risk, but not the same one. The VC is taking a financial risk, the founder is taking a time and money risk. Early team members are taking career and financial risks. There is only so much risk you can understand upfront. The best way to learn is to take the plunge. I want to leave you with my favorite quote on courage
No matter how wonderful our dreams, how noble our ideals, or how high our hopes, ultimately we need courage to make them a reality. Without action, it’s as if they never existed. - Daisaku Ikeda