Like anything else, we need to practice startups

Written on 28th August, 2011
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It is easy to look at successful founders and see them as genuises, as people who were without a doubt going to be triumphant. When we look at people in that way, it is completely understandable to think that they were born lucky and that we have some kind of disadvantage.

The story of Tom Preston-Werner

I was recently watching a Mixergy interview where Andrew Warner interviewed Tom Preston-Werner who founded GitHub. Tom is an amazingly talented and eloquent guy who has grown one of the most successful startups that exists today. Even more amazing, is that GitHub is completely bootstrapped. I’ve recently moved from the UK to San Francisco where GitHub is based, and I can say that especially over here a successful company being completely bootstrapped is very unusual.

Genius, or practice?

When you come across people like Tom who have built amazing, profitable companies like GitHub without taking a penny of outside funding, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking that he was born destined to achieve this success, born with some kind of advantage over the rest of us.

However, before we assume that to be the case, let’s look a little into what he’s done previously.

What Tom did before GitHub

Tom has been an avid open source developer, and chose to start writing open source software through a desire to participating in the community and gain some recognition. He was one of the first to write a Flash Replacement for text elemtns, though Sean Inman was the one who improved on it and ultimately took the glory with his sIFR. Later, Tom saw a need in the blogging community for a profile picture which would follow you around blogs and the web, especially in the commenting ecosystem, so he created Gravatar.

How Tom’s practice helped him with GitHub

Tom says his motivation to do these projects was to be a part of the community and nothing more. The key thing, however, is that he kept working away on projects.

Tom tried to monetize Gravatar through premium accounts, but he says that nobody really paid for premium accounts. He even took donations to keep Gravatar alive. Reflecting on this experience, Tom says:

"If you have an idea that becomes popular, and you don’t have a way to make money from it, well now you’re in a pickle."

It is now clear why he was able to build GitHub so quickly, and do it with no funding: he had practiced with previous projects. Tom took the experience of Gravatar growing so big without a revenue model and put in place a revenue model from the get-go with GitHub:

"If you’re gonna do a side project, that you think might become popular, you better damn well be able to make money from it, because otherwise you end up with a Gravatar where you just don’t even want it anymore and now you have to do something to get rid of it or otherwise deal with it somehow."

We don’t know when we’re practicing

One thing which seems clear when listening to Tom talking to Andrew about his experiences, is that when he was writing the Flash Replacement script as an open source project, he had no idea he would go on to build Gravatar, and when he did Gravatar he had no idea he would eventually build GitHub. Looking back, however, it is clear how these projects helped him build GitHub.

We won’t always know when we are practicing, but the important thing is that we are. What if that seemingly insignificant bit of open source code you write today is the beginning for you?

"Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good." - Malcolm Gladwell

Do you have an experience where in hindsight you can see that a previous project was the practice you needed for your current project? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Photo credit: nichole