Underbelly: What haughty startup bloggers don’t tell you

You have to wonder at these folks who blog so confidently about how to run little companies.

I mean, on the one hand Joel teaches us everything we need to know about customer service while being funny and telling stories. But has Joel ever screwed up? If so, he hasn’t said.

Or 37signals, a company run by geeks with a unique vision about why products (not just software) should be simple and beautiful. They even wrote a whole book about it. Inspiration in every paragraph. Love it! But read their blog and all you get is ultimatums — unwavering confidence that their way is gospel handed down from Mt. Sinai.

Shoot, I’m also guilty of blasting my patient readers to always be honest, never use the phase “and more,” and how you should fearlessly pursue ideas, or maybe completely change them. Huh?

“Always” “never” “do” “don’t.” Such confidence! It’s a lot to look up to, a lot to emulate.

Aren’t you just like these perfect personas? You’ve got an internally-consistent philosophy guiding every decision, right?

You’ve always got the correct answer and never toss and turn at night.  RIGHT?

You don’t worry about competitors or worry about having shitty ideas or whether money will come through the door next month…. uh… right?

I mean, can you imagine Joel fretting, wringing his hands, wondering how he’s going to make payroll, second-guessing his choices, wondering if maybe they should have added some feature, or frightened that a price-change could completely destroy the revenue stream?

Well that’s it. I’m coming out of the closet. It’s not fair, and it’s not accurate.

Running a little company is frickin’ frightening. See if any of this sounds familiar:

  1. I don’t have the confidence or the stamina that I see in all those successful people that I admire. I can’t do this.
  2. There’s too much to do; it’s impossible. How does everyone else find the time?
  3. I don’t know anything about marketing/sales/accounting/software/websites/Twitter/blogging. These other people seem to know everything. I don’t know enough.
  4. How will anyone ever find out about me? The Internet is too big.
  5. I won’t be able to get revenue. The economy sucks.
  6. Why would anyone give me money when there are big established companies out there?
  7. My orders are supposed to have picked up by now, but they’re haven’t.
  8. Someone just said something bad about me on [insert social networking micro-universe]. Great, that’s easier to find than my own website.
  9. My website looks like ass. Everyone’s going to know I’m small.

This is just the beginning of the thoughts and emotions I had when starting Smart Bear in 2002. I could list another 100. You’re not alone. This is normal.

“So what?” you cry! “It’s normal. Fantastic. That doesn’t fix anything.”

Okay. Here’s mindset for dealing with all the examples above (in the same order):

  1. Their confidence is a façade. Strong statements are useful literary devices; hedging and vacillation are tedious. But these are not core statements they’ve known about from the beginning of time. Not a one of them has run their companies according to all those rules from day one. They figured it out in the course of running their companies, and then they talked about it. Big difference! You can figure it out too.
  2. There’s always an infinite amount of work. Remind yourself that no matter how hard you work, there’s way too much to do. Take a break and take care of yourself. Do a few concrete things every day. Realize that procrastination is healthy and useful. Success doesn’t come because you did everything, it’s because you did the important things.
  3. Even the “experts” in things like Twitter are still figuring it out. Remember the rise of the Internet in the late 1990’s? Go read about what the “experts” said and see if anyone guessed something like Twitter would dominate the world. Don’t attack all these things at once; just pick one thing at a time to get good at. For things like law and accounting, yes it’s worth the cost.
  4. If your niche is small enough, and if your message is targeted enough, you win. Think small, not big. Win in a teeny corner, then expand.
  5. A recession is the best time to start a company. Use it.
  6. Small companies have advantages and the big-company advantages are not as big as you think, and they shoot themselves in the foot every day. Just phrase things right when talking to customers. And here’s more specific ways to defeat the big guys.
  7. Business has no correct timetable. That’s like saying your kid should be potty-trained by now when every kid is different. You’re measuring against a yardstick that doesn’t exist.
  8. Good words spread faster than bad ones, because it’s more fun to tell good stories than bad ones. Thrill some customers, then ask them to post about it.
  9. It turns out your website’s ugliness doesn’t matter much. Sure, when you get a little dough you can pretty it up, but Smart Bear’s looked like ass for a long time and it didn’t hurt us. Or look at Craig’s List. It’s a disaster. Doesn’t matter.

Remember this: Doubt is good. It means you’re being introspective, that you’re not resting on prior knowledge (that might be invalid now), and that you’re honestly weighing the situation instead of employing blind optimism. Doubt is healthy! Hold onto that.

Will any of this make you feel better? Probably not, because feelings are emotional, not logical. If I read this list back then, I doubt it would have “fixed” my worries. But maybe it helps to know that this is just how it goes.

So listen to the expert bloggers; they have great advice. Just filter their attitudes through your own lens, and remember that they went through this pain too.

Hey you! You must have words of wisdom for the downtrodden little entrepreneur. Leave a comment and boost someone’s spirits today!

38 responses to “Underbelly: What haughty startup bloggers don’t tell you”

  1. Well said, Jason. We have a tendency to idolize those folks that we believe to be successful without reminding ourselves that so much of that success is due to hard work and random acts of luck rather than some unique talent or gift of that person.

  2. I struggle with this from the perspective of the blogger. I make many confident claims, how to’s, or defined statements of how things are, even though I’m not really proven myself. I’m in the process and I can only speak from the perspective that my experience allows. However, sometimes (over) confidence helps you jump hurdles and reach milestones.

    It is very important to analyze the perspective of the author when taking advice on startup stuff. I believe some of the claims I make and advice I give can be very helpful for those who are at the stage in the process that I am. Others know much more than I, I welcome their advice and opinion in comments!

    Great post and glad that you brought this point to peoples attention.

  3. When I teach problem-solving I run into this a lot. The best problem-solvers are eternally balanced between confidence and doubt–too much doubt and they can’t get started, but too much confidence and they can’t change course.

    To drill down on one thing here, I agree that Criagslist is ugly, but it’s important to notice the difference between ugly and poorly designed. Craigslist’s ugly design conveys something to its readers that it very much wants them to believe–it’s the cinema verite of websites. No nonsense, to-the-point, and most importantly, true.

  4. @Louis — Yes, when it turns into idolizing you’ve lost perspective. In fact Jason at 37signals wrote about just that, in agreement with you.

    @Ryan — I agree that you need to be confident when you write. Being soft or wishy-washy is (a) boring to read and (b) verbose. In fact I do it intentionally, hoping that arguments can be brought up e.g. in the comments or in subsequent posts.

    Indeed, I’m not saying those bloggers are wrong! I’m glad they write the way that they do. But as a reader you need to be aware of the difference between the persona and reality.

    It becomes a problem only when you’re not aware of this, and then since you can’t live up to this impossible standard, you become frozen or unsure of yourself.

    @Alex — I agree the balance is important. I also agree that Craig’s List is functional. I didn’t intend to bash it but rather the opposite — to show that "traditional designed" website are not critical to business success. Although I also agree I didn’t make the point clearly! :-) Your clarification is excellent.

  5. Very true. The biggest learning is that startups or new businesses are not an exact science. Nobody has a sureshot formula of success. You have to discover it on your own. Thats partly why its so fun and so scary too. :)

  6. Jason,

    There is another adverse consequence to writers spewing advice and seeming invincible; it makes other founders less likely to start interesting and honest blogs. Founders want their blog to convey the notion that their startup is going to survive. If founders admitted feelings of doubt and concern, users would question why they should put faith in a company. This is especially true when writers at a startup’s competition offer advice and seem to know so much.

    This post is written after Smart Bear Software achieved success. Would you be able to write this when your company first launched? I admit, I am afraid to blog honestly at scribnia.com/blog/ for those same reasons.

  7. I’m feeling #1-6 now as I have an idea and have been in a state of indecisiveness regarding moving foward. I don’t have a lot of time since I have a full time job and family.

    Thanks for this post – I’m glad everything I’m feeling is normal. I did some initial research to make sure my idea didn’t suck that bad. I just need to kickstart myself prodbably by listing out all the tasks for 1.0, including a website that looks like ass, because I can pretty it up later :)

  8. I happily run my life and my business as an agnostic. It probably makes me less financially successful that I could otherwise be but there are other things more important than making money to me. I am very big on honesty and what ever it is in my personality it makes me feel compelled to expose both the up and the downside of what I am offering. If people had thought likewise, less people would have taken mortgages they couldn’t afford, there wouldn’t have been a sub-prime collapse, there wouldn’t have been a financial crisis and we wouldn’t be in a recession. Not knowing is good. Telling people that perhaps the realestate market won’t go up forever might have been sensible. Not knowing drives you to learn. Unfortunately, People and Business like certainty.
    If you listen to Tony Robbins http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RIEO9REaj_I his 2nd rule in this speel is "act like you know". I almost never know. I gain solice in a definition of courage "Doubt and Action". Feel the fear and do it anyway.

  9. @Rajiv — Yes, learning as you go is exactly how it works. In fact, if I were starting again now only some of my knowledge would still be applicable. For example, I started 5 years ago with just AdWords, but nowadays that’s a completely different scene, far more expensive and with far more competition.

    @MJ — I’m glad it helped validate your emotions. Let’s be honest, a lot of this is emotional.

    @Greg — I love your closing line: "Feel the fear and do it anyway." Yes! Fear is good but it isn’t a wall. Thanks for the perspective.

  10. @Russell

    I wanted to respond to you separately; you make terrific points, especially asking whether I would be so open and honest in the early days of Smart Bear.

    No, I would not have had the courage to be this open and honest in the early days of Smart Bear. I would have the fears you list: That my (potential) customers would be scared to commit, both to this nutty, unstable founder and to this company that must be questionable considering the founder himself is uncertain!

    However, I’m not suggesting that founders in early stages open their heart in their blogs! What I’m saying is that bloggers (like me!) who have already traveled the road and who now can afford to be honest, should be honest.

    That is, separate being honest with your customers about things like pricing, product development, expectations, etc, with being honest about all your fears and hopes and tribulations. The latter is personal; the former is good business.

    But if I’m going to do my little part in helping new founders, new waves of little startups, I can help somewhat by blasting rules and "truths" and whatnot, but I believe I can help even more by showing the nasty underbelly.

    I know back when I was starting out I had all these emotions and I didn’t know if they were right or not. Should I have blogged about it? As you suggest, no, at least not on my company blog (although in a personal blog it would be interesting!).

    But if someone else had told me my emotions were valid, that these weren’t reasons to quit but rather just par for the course, that would have consoled me.

    So I’m saying that, now, I want to serve in that manner, and even more so because many of the uber-popular bloggers don’t do it.

    Thanks, Russell, for pointing this out. It’s an important point, and it’s more than fair to hold me to the same "rules" that I blast out to you! :-)

  11. Jason,

    Thanks for the reply, I am glad that you clarified that. I think that writing a company blog is one of the hardest things for the reasons that you bring up. You have so much more to share than updates, new feature alerts, and prosaic information about the business. However, as you mention its good business practice to keep these sentiments private.

    By the way, I would not advocate sharing information about your business on a personal blog because its so easily traceable back to your company. I think the best strategy is what you have done; keep track of how you feel and when your company is safely established (or even if it fails), blog about it.

    I definitely appreciate the post. As you mentioned, its a validating feeling knowing that others have been through the same emotions as I have (and are now successful). Keep up the good work!

  12. In response to #6:

    >Why would anyone give me money when there are big established companies out >there?

    >Small companies have advantages and the big-company advantages are not as big as >you think, and they shoot themselves in the foot every day.

    Maybe that subject could be a good future blog post on corporatepreneur.com… thanks for the idea!

  13. Great post! I started following your blog about a month ago and I like your honesty. Good example to emulate.

  14. Amen brother. I am often amused at the "experts" out there that spew knowledge. If something is brand new, how do they claim expertise? Aren’t we all still figuring it out?

  15. @Robert — Right! Isn’t it better to talk about how to learn, how to observe, how to think, how to react?

    Still I do love reading blogs from the big boys; they have a lot to teach. Just have to have the right mindset about it.

  16. This is one of my favorite blogs – and the reason is that "great advice" and "business truth" is dispensed freely on a regular basis here. This post is one of your best!!!

    Jason, you wear the "scars" of building a successful business well. The one thing I’d like to point out to one and all is this phrase: "This is just the beginning of the thoughts and emotions I had when starting Smart Bear in 2002." Um – do the math folks. Jason’s been at this for seven years!!!

    Unfortunately, not everyone wants to hear "the truth" as it’s dispensed freely here!! Keep serving it Jason – I’m always here with my dixie cup in hand, cheering you on!

  17. @Kathy — Thanks as always! Yeah, it takes a long time, no doubt. If you’re used to the VC timeframe you don’t realize it:

    Explode in success or implode in failure in 3 years or your money back! Oh wait, you don’t get your money back…

    But yeah, debt-free, no-funding companies take time. Building anything valuable takes time. Becoming an expert in something takes time. There’s no short-cuts.

    Heck, even Google took something like 7-8 years before the founders had $1b.

    Thanks for your encouragement!

  18. Jason, I really don’t see anything that we couldn’t be honest about. I’ve shared almost all of my failures in my blog posts, at least the business ones. Failure offers perspective. I haven’t shared relationship failures yet but they haven’t been relevant to a point. :)

    I think my courage comes from having risked and lost it all. In addition courage is easier for a one many business. I really can’t be hurt by much. It’s pretty cool immunity.

  19. "Their confidence is a façade." That is too big a statement. Sure, there are poseurs out here. For some, however, the confidence is true confidence. As you said, "They figured it out in the course of running their companies, and then they talked about it." That’s the point: They figured it out and now are confidently talking about it.

    Yes, not everything that looks like confidence is confidence. Some of it is a façade. Some of it is self-delusion. Some of it is legit.

  20. Hell yeah! I’ve started keeping my own absolutist internally-consistent philosophy, which, when I am a successful entrepreneur, I will confidently state was 100% responsible for my own success. The list includes:

    * Rule 1: I’m going to be wrong. Frequently. If I can be right more so than I’m wrong, I win anyway.

    * Rule 5: There are no five pillars of anything.

    * and more!

  21. @Kerry — Good point. You’re right, my wording isn’t accurate, and of course that confidence is earned.

    What I meant was that their unwaivering confidence today isn’t necessarily a fair representation of their feelings or behavior years ago when they got started.

    As others have pointed out, that’s OK! It’s earned, and anyway it makes for a good literary base, especially in the form of blog posts.

    At the same time, if you’re starting out and you have all these fears, you might infer from this that they’ve always been this confident and sure, and then you might feel like you’re not good enough to do it yourself.

    It’s this last bit I’m trying to tear down. I admit, it comes from folks inferring rather than these bloggers misleading. Still, it’s common.

    @Jay — I’m still laughing! Awesome, and simultaneously completely on-target…

  22. If everything came easy, we would all be lost in a drug induced world of hostility. The challenge is the best part. Discovery, set backs, triumphs, jitters, fear, anxiety, heart palpitations…. these are the things that make us feel alive and most importantly what makes the successes/ highs exactly that. The saying goes ‘money doesn’t buy happiness’ because the how is where the happiness comes from. The monetary result measures popular success, and is the well deserved fruit of our labor. I’m dream- weaving my own little start up- have been for weeks now- and it’s the most exhilarating road I’ve traveled to date. Every time I come across a term/concept I’m not familiar with (like something as simple as "impressions" a.k.a ads…lol) I feel like one little hurdle has been jumped…. and bring on the next! The more hurdles I jump, the closer I am to mastery! Rejoice in all the mystery of social media and internet- with mystery comes opportunity. And remember: if you were watering your own grass, the neighbor’s wouldn’t look so damn good.

  23. Jason,

    What a great post. By opening up and sharing the fears and frustrations you had when you started your company, other founders can feel like they are not alone out there !

    While I like your comments about how some bloggers portray invincibility, there is something to be said about having the voice of wisdom give you advice in an unwavering manner. Their confidence boosts other people’s confidence, gives them hope that their endeavor may turn out OK, and influences others to start their own companies.

    There is no right or wrong here, I think. Of course, too much of bravado can become boring, but so can sharing only the negatives or the problems. As has been researched at length in the movie business, audiences like happy endings. That’s exactly what a lot of bloggers are giving their readers.

    In any case, you are a brave person for taking the initiative and this will only boost your reputation (I for one already have high respect for your accomplishments, and now I have even more!). I wish some of the other bloggers would sometimes come down from their pedestals and mingle among us fearful mortals.

  24. @Nat — Thanks for interesting observations and perspectives, and good luck with your new venture! You’re right, it’s tremendously exciting.

    @Daniel — I completely agree with you that generally posts need to be confident. Dithering is tedious and useless. Of course I myself normally write with the air of "this is the only way" for the same reason.

    But as you said in your last sentence, that’s fine most of the time, but it’s nice to know that it is, indeed, a literary device and confidence born of experience, and nothing something you should expect to have along the way.

    Thanks for your kind words and support!

  25. "Doubt is good." And really difficult!

    Your post made me think of something I had read about Abraham Lincoln: "When faced with uncertainty he had the patience, endurance, and vigor to stay in that place of tension, and the courage to be alone."

    Starting and running a business doesn’t have the same degree of stress and responsibility as Lincoln had to carry (just a point of clarification there), but the lesson is still there to be learned. Doubt is not necessarily the enemy.

    (I just spend the last thirty minutes trying to locate the article…Success!)

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