Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Startups are not a game

Earlier this week, I attended an event in Chicago where startups gave brief presentations about their businesses and answered a few questions from the audience. On the whole, the event was very disappointing, for a variety of reasons. Of the eight startups that presented, one (or perhaps two) identified viable market opportunities that aren't 1) Irrelevant, 2) Already being served, 3) Impossible to scale, or 4) Vulnerable to immediately being taken over by a bigger company. In addition, many of the presentations were amateurish. You expect demos to crash--that's a given--but most of the presenters hadn't thought through what might happen if they couldn't access WiFi. (And, if they didn't think through a simple problem like not having access to a network, how likely are they to think through much more difficult problems like building a sustainable business?)

What's disconcerting to me is how many people see startups as a game. It's incredibly easy to start a company; the software and services necessary are available for free or at very low cost, at least while the business is in the development phase. Incubators, startup weekends and shared workspaces are popping up everywhere. Yet, the real process of starting and running a business is hard work. There's no glamour and very little fun involved with spending 12 to 14 hours a day raising money, staffing up, talking with customers, writing and testing code, and selling. However, creating a startup is far too often seen as a game that's won when the business raises funding.

Eric Ries has written an excellent post about the "startup winter" that will inevitably come. There's too much volatility in financial markets for venture funding to continue at its current pace. Today alone, five IPOs were delayed or withdrawn. Ries believes that "a shocking number of the current crop of incubators, accelerators, and other startup-support programs will suddenly disappear," especially second- and third-tier programs. Think about how few of the startups spawned from these programs actually mature into successful businesses, and how many of them pivot just in the few months that they're in incubators and accelerators.

Given the low success rate of most of these programs, they look a lot less like incubators for successful businesses and a lot more like post-graduate entrepreneurial education programs. They do have one big difference from conventional educational programs: Instead of charging tuition, these programs pay a stipend to participants. It's not a bad way to learn (depending on who's teaching), but it's not necessarily a good way to launch a business. Don't get me wrong--incubators like Y Combinator and TechStars have had a lot of success; it's the second- and third-tier programs that are much harder to justify based on their track records.

If the flood of capital that's been chasing startups dries up, running a startup will no longer seem like a game and will become what it always has been--hard, risky work. At that point, I expect many of today's startup entrepreneurs to go back to looking for full-time jobs.
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