90% of VC-funded startups fail.
When the probability of a moonshot is close to zero and there are many slower growth alternatives with better odds, it is narcissism and insecurity that pushes startup founders to naively announce to the world - "hey, I'm building a unicorn!"
What is this desperation to chase something so unrealistic?
You want to help as many people as possible?
Okay. But you can help a shit load of people with slower, incremental growth. You can do it for longer, with a much greater chance of success. And you'll do it with an unbridled focus on the customer, rather than your own selfish gain.
Simply being a billion dollar company does not improve the lives of your customers at all. Frankly, and this will probably put you off the idea, they don't give a shit.
"Well, I read Elon's book and I'm so deeply inspired by him I want to do something similar".
I know why you've fallen into this trap. Tony Robbins and NLP trainers teach us to model (mimic) the behaviours of those we want to emulate. Doing so will 'magically' give us similar success.
Many people emulate Steve Jobs. On the surface it makes sense. But when true mimicry means taking on the whole of a person, I bet every cent in my bank account that Jobs would trade places with you instantly.
Emulating Elon Musk would mean taking on all of the other shit from his life. The lack of sleep, not seeing his family, multiple children with different wives, scandals, court cases, intense stress, underlying unhappiness.
Plus, Musk is one of the longest term thinkers in business. His success is based on playing an infinite game. But VC pressure and the desperation to become a unicorn is forcing you to think only short term, thus reducing your chances of success and increasing the likelihood of pissing off customers, your employees and getting really fucking depressed.
How can you honestly justify your decision to reject building a slow growth, sustainable company in favour of that mythical hockey stick growth?
I cannot even begin to get my head around why someone would start a business for any other reason than because it helps other people.
Derek Sivers said "would you still go travelling if you couldn't take photos?"
I would. And do, a lot.
But I'm not so insecure that I need to tell the world that I've built a unicorn just to get some validation that I'm not, in fact, deeply flawed like everyone else.
And it's in that that I find solace. Because we are all deeply flawed. But a lack of self awareness leaves us with a population of startup founders pumped up by their own self importance and desperate for the adoration of people who've created this mythical outcome.
I partly blame the startup culture. But the self-help industry is to blame, too.
You don't have to go far to find bright young entrepreneurs who've killed themselves. Depression is everywhere. I think part of the problem for these entrepreneurs is that they spend every second of their life living in a state of pre-success (otherwise known as failure). And sensitive entrepreneur types feel that deeply.
I'm able to write this post because I was lucky enough to have a serious, but not fatal, breakdown at 26. Nothing is worth going back to that dark place again.
Ryan Kulp, who is not a unicorn founder, said that he dreams of waking up and having lost all of his money, his businesses and the skills that got him to where he is. Why? Because for him, like many founders, it's ALL about the journey.
Ricardo Semler taught his Havard Business School classes to read Kafka instead of Drucker. He wants them to avoid having a break down at 45, trading their wives in for 19 year olds and buying Ferrari's. The management and productivity lessons from business gurus you can learn on your own time. Let's think more deeply now.
Unicorn status is an external measurement of success. It's more about validation, than doing a great job.
Warren Buffett only keeps an internal scorecard. It's part of the reason he's still going strong at 91.
Buffett said "I feel like I’m on my back, and there’s the Sistine Chapel, and I’m painting away. I like it when people say, ‘Gee, that’s a pretty good-looking painting.’ But it’s my painting, and when somebody says, ‘Why don’t you use more red instead of blue?’ Good-bye. It’s my painting. And I don’t care what they sell it for. The painting itself will never be finished. That’s one of the great things about it."
And it's with an inner scorecard that you can ignore the arbitrary goals. The pre-approved exclusive club of entrepreneurs who are now, magically, unicorns.
For me the inner scorecard is the ONLY scorecard.
If all the emphasis is on what the world’s going to think about you, forgetting about how you really behave, you’ll wind up with an Outer Scorecard - Warren Buffett.
The better alternative
There's nothing wrong in building a big company because you delivered immense value to people. But the goalposts should be removed. Why not create a system where you serve as many customers as you can with the capacity that you have now. As demand grows, scale up with the market. You'll avoid pressuring customers to buy. You'll avoid being selfish. You'll avoid the pain of needing to be a fucking unicorn.
With business, my only goal is to continue playing the game. So, in my reality, tipping the odds against me by chasing mythical creatures greatly reduces my chances of being able to continue playing. It opens the door to greed, selfishness and a sense of artificial importance.
If you're starting businesses for the end result - you're likely in the wrong game. Or at least without lots of self-reflection you're not currently playing the right game.
Let's make sure that our ideas of success are truly our own and not those created by the dogmatic leaders of the startup culture. If it means we must become part of a counter-culture, then so be it. At least then we'll be waltzing down a path of our own creation.