Joel Gascoigne

Startups, life, learning and happiness

I'm Founder & CEO of Buffer. This is where I share lessons I'm learning.

Why you should continue working on your bad idea

Written on 1st September, 2012
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Broken Light Bulb

"The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out; the brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. The brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They are there to stop the other people!" - Randy Pausch

I’ve recently had a few email exchanges with startup founders struggling with an idea. Often they’ve been working on their idea for a while, and they have found some things haven’t played out as they imagined they would.

When we’re in the early stages of the startup, the valley of death, we will often find ourselves questioning our ideas many times. This is great, as we need to validate our assumptions, but it also means we can find the lizard brain kicking in and persuading us we should give up.

In addition to our own minds suggesting we should stop working on our idea, in the early stages a startup is so fragile that it is very easy for others to influence us. If someone remarks that our idea isn’t useful to them, or that we should do something else, or that we should get a “proper job”, it can easily make us stop and think.

3 reasons you should keep working on your startup

Whilst the many factors can make us feel like we should stop, I want to share some motives for continuing regardless.

Earn the required experience and learning

"Almost always, when you learn the backstory, you find that behind every “overnight success” is a story of entrepreneurs toiling away for years, with very few people except themselves and perhaps a few friends, users, and investors supporting them. Startups are hard, but they can also go from difficult to great incredibly quickly. You just need to survive long enough and keep going so you can create your 52nd game." - Chris Dixon

One thing I’ve found through personal experience as well as looking at the paths of founders I admire, is that a startup journey is a process which is best treated like a career (read: it takes a while). Unless you are extremely lucky (and there is luck involved in startups), the chances are that you won’t hit the jackpot first time around. It took me a few tries, and in the process I learned a massive amount. I often call my previous not so successful startup my “required learning” which led me to have more success with Buffer.

If you have the inclination to do a startup, then I suggest that you always have an idea you’re working on, because the learning tends to only happen through doing.

You want to have something you’re doing

I think it is very powerful to have something you’re actively working on which is your own. Maybe you call it a project, maybe a startup, but something beyond “work” means that you have something to drive you.

This “something” can be what causes you to reach out to someone key for your success, or attend an event, or even offer to speak at an event. All these kinds of activities create serendipity which can have a huge impact.

I’ve chatted with many successful founders who similarly took the plunge at some point and travelled to Silicon Valley. One thing which always seems to come up, is the power of having a purpose of being there, a reason to get meetings with smart people. For us, we got into AngelPad, raised a seed round and got a great group of investors and advisors on board for Buffer.

Jumping on a plane to the valley is an amazing thing to do, especially if you have something you want to achieve out of the trip.

Good ideas come through iteration

"real startups tend to discover the problem they’re solving by a process of evolution. Someone has an idea for something; they build it; and in doing so (and probably only by doing so) they realize the problem they should be solving is another one" - Paul Graham

In general, the startups which are most successful are vastly different today than the initial idea. I think that this is actually the norm rather than the exception. Here are three examples from a great article by Vinicius Vacanti:

  • Flickr started as a web-based massively multiplayer online game called Game Neverending
  • Instagram started as an HTML5 supported location-based service
  • Groupon started as a way to allow groups of people to band together to accomplish a goal called ThePoint

Sometimes through iteration you uncover learning which invalidates your idea or some key assumptions. At the same time, this means that further iteration can also lead to the exact opposite: uncovering an idea or features which people want and will gain traction.

Have you ever given up on something and feel in hindsight it would have been better to continue? Are you considering quitting your startup? Maybe you dropped an idea and it was actually a great move. I’d love to hear from you.

Photo credit: Sergio Alvarez

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