Two things happened this week that have me thinking about the up and down cycles we all encounter. First, Devpost, the startup I’ve worked at for the last six and a half years, reached ten years in business. Second, a close friend let me know that the business he built was in serious trouble, scaling back operations, and might not survive.
Let me start with the latter.
My friend and I discussed some ways to talk with himself about the situation. In times of great stress, it’s important to be precise and intentional about our internal language. Our thoughts create our mindset, and our mindset creates how we perceive reality and interface with the world. Having the wrong conversation with yourself is a foundation for problems.
When we talked I shared my assessment that whatever this situation was, it didn’t seem like failure to me. I view failure as not trying, not being willing to test your dreams against reality, and sitting on the sidelines. My friend responded that, although he recognized this, “it sure still feels like failure” to him. That’s fair. So what to do?
The answer is to understand the appropriate level of analysis within the context of what you are trying to learn.
Think about how maps work. Google Maps is a great example. Maps have to convey a lot of information - where places are, how they relate to each other, and what they look like. If I asked you to show me where Little Rock, Arkansas is you would show me a very different map than if I asked where the best coffee shop there is. The ‘zoom’ has to relate to what you are trying to find. When using a map we set the appropriate level of focus to give us the information we need. When the focus is wrong the information is obscured and unhelpful.
Exchange depth of resolution for scale of time, and we start to get closer to understanding how my friend is feeling. Yes, the business is in trouble- you might even say failing. This is a difficult time, especially for a founder. No one experiences a company's success or failure like a founder. Without the right mental model, it’s easy to apply the information from one level to another -extrapolating this project’s failure as your own. At the wrong level, the information is usually not helpful and at worst, it’s damaging.
Does this thought pattern actually help my friend? I suspect not directly at this present time. However, it does provide two important benefits. First, it contains the failure within a known context- the business failing (if it does) does not make him a failure. Second, we can build on that reassurance to help think clearly about the right immediate steps regarding the business.
While I hope that you never have to deal with something like this, it’s an honest risk when trying to do meaningful things. Just remember that all your successes and failures have a level of focus beyond which they lose fidelity.
On to happier thoughts.
Ten years is a long time, and we’ve made it there. Along the way, there have been bad times and good times.
I often think that startups are vastly misrepresented in popular media. Here’s one particularly grating example: A car company shows aspirational footage of their car with the line: “this is for the Build-a-Company, Sell-the-Company and Move On person” (excuse my poetic license with the exact wording, but you get the idea). Any real analysis of the data tells you this simply isn’t true for practically all new ventures, even those backed by venture capital. The truth is that the people building these companies work hard for prolonged periods of time. Encountering many highs and lows along the way.
It’s tempting to look at this industry’s massive success stories and think that’s what it’s all about. That would be a mistake. It’s important to look at those companies, not because they are typical (they aren’t), but because you can learn from how they handled the hundreds of ups and downs that lead to them being ‘overnight’ success stories.
That’s what I take from Devpost reaching ten years. Like any other new venture that makes it to such a milestone, there are many things to admire. For me, the one I rate highest is the resilience of the team, and our CEO in particular. You don’t get there without encountering a few bumps in the road, placing that information in its correct context, and keeping an eye zoomed out on the picture as you move forward.