Small Biz 101: No one starts with a masterpiece RyanC 17 Dec 2005

42 comments Latest by liz

Recap

In case you’re new to the Small Biz 101 series, it’s an in-the-trenches style guide to how to start your own web company, based on my experience starting DropSend and Carson Workshops. In my first two articles, How to get started and Cash flow, I covered some of the basics of how to get your company started and how to manage your cash flow.

The biggest hurdle

In this article, I’d like to focus on something that I believe holds people back from starting their own company or launching a new product or service. What is this hurdle? It’s the belief that you have to know exactly what you’re doing from day #1.

Let me explain. Think about successful companies like Ford, GE, Dyson, Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Flickr, Hershey, Dell, Sun, etc. The common misconception is that the founders of these companies knew exactly what they were doing, where they were going and how to be successful when they started.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

No one actually knows what they’re doing

Every successful business has a dirty little secret: They didn’t know if they were going to be successful when they started. They probably did their homework, researched the market and had a bit of experience. But there were no guarantees

I just finished a book about Google called The Search, by John Battelle. What I learned from the book is that it’s easy to look at a company like Google and say "Larry and Sergey are so impressive. They had a vision to change the world and they did it. I could never be like that."

The truth is, they had no idea if they were going to succeed when they started. What if Larry had said to Sergey, "Hmmm, I don’t know Sergey. Surely somebody has already figured out this search thing - and they probably know what they’re doing! We’re just a couple of college kids so let’s just play it safe and get good jobs at a stable company."

This is all very similar to when you realise that your parents don’t know everything. All the sudden it hits you that there are no black and white rules and that you’ve got to start figuring things out for yourself. Starting a company is exactly the same. All those people and businesses that you look up to and respect - they’re just like you. They don’t have some special magic expertise that helps them make good decisions - they have to figure it out for themselves and hope they make the right call.

Leonardo and the Mona Lisa

I think a great example of my point is da Vinci’s masterpiece, La Gioconda, also known as the Mona Lisa. When he sat down to paint it, he had no idea that it would become one of the world’s most famous paintings.

What if he had waited until he was sure he was going to paint a masterpiece? The answer is that he probably would’ve never started.

So now what?

Where is the practical advice? To put it plainly:

Get used to being uncomfortable and not knowing how things will turn out.

It’s totally normal and it’s a good sign that you’re pushing yourself.

When you get nervous about starting your own company, or launching that new product, just remember that even the best of the best felt nervous and uncomfortable when they started. Just like you, they took a gamble and hoped for the best, with no guarantees of success.

The sooner you’re OK with feeling scared, the sooner you can get on with executing your ideas.

Next Time

As usual, let me know your opinions on what I’ve said. See you next time …

42 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Joel 17 Dec 05

I totally agree, our biggest fear is to fail. But when you dare to do something you initally is afraid of is the time when you grow the most. And even if you failed, the stuff learned on the way is worth so much more.

(sorry for my bad english, I’m not a native speaker )

ichigo 17 Dec 05

i know too much people who had great visions and never did anything to realize the visions because they wanted to do it perfect if they do it.

and i know from myself that i also had many ideas which i never realized just because i planned the outcome in too much detail until all my motivation was gone.

Jan 17 Dec 05

To be honest, I don’t think you need to have a masterpiece to be successful. If you make something that doesn’t suck, then that’s already pretty good.
For example, (I don’t want to put 37signals down here) but Backpackit or Basecamp are hardly masterpieces, they are not revolutionary or extremely innovative. Those services are pretty damn good, and in the software world that is just plain fantastic.

Hassan Hodges 17 Dec 05

I’ve seen similar thoughts in a richdad book about things to do before quitting your job. And that book focuses on failing as a crucial step toward success. I’m not sure if failure is the key ingredient as much as doing it, sink or swim. As long as you do it, you’ll either learn a lesson or succede.

I’m loving this series, and am feeling inspirsed now, thanks!

Mark 17 Dec 05

I think the other big misconception about big, successful companies is that they know what they are doing now.

Like the parent example you mention, big oganizations and their leaders have it no more whipped than we do — they’re taking it day by day just like everyone else.

The difference is that both our parents and big, successful companies generally have the luxury of experience and financial resources to fall back on in those times when they need to adapt and change.

The fact is, the world changes at a hectic pace. None of us, from the government, to the big giant corps, to the innovative web leaders, to the freelancer, to the new generation of parents and kids today, are doing anything the same as our predecessors did, or even as we did just a few years ago.

jd 17 Dec 05

ryan, your final point: “The sooner youíre OK with feeling scared, the sooner you can get on with executing your ideas” is a good one.

it’s fear that puts an end to many entrepreneurial dreams. fear of the unknown, fear of failure, maybe even fear of success.

it could be the society we live in or the individual in question, but the vast majority of us humans have a default setting of fear. meaning, if it involves any element of risk or deviation from the norm, most will stay put inside their cave. too much to lose, too much on the line and too many odds stacked against you.

but after a lot of thought and planning, i got over the first hurdle and left my fulltime position back in august. with a 12 month reserve in the bank, time passes unbelievably fast. the fear is there on a daily basis but i’m making progress and fine-tuning a small family of design focused business services launching early next year.

thanks to 37s for the inspiration so far and to ryan for the interesting series so far.

Mike Moscow 17 Dec 05

great read…

Mat 17 Dec 05

Once again, a great post.

Everyone starting a business has to assume that they will be successful. They wouldn’t start a business without that belief. Fear will dog you every step of the way, but channel that fear to drive you to success.

The key point that I took from this is that the business that you end up making a success may look quite different from the one that you started with. Google started with an innovative search engine and that created the initial fan base. What has propelled Google into the tech stratosphere is the adoption of paid search, which was an Overture innovation. Google did not want to use paid search at first, but realised that they needed to change their business to be successful.

So get used to being flexible and be ready to change you business to achieve success.

The second point that I took away is about being comfortable with making decisions with a huge degree of uncertainty. This is a key attribute for anyone developing a business. Being able to make decisions without ‘perfect’ data is the key to success. Far better to make a quick decision and course correct later than procrastinate and never get started.

So be ready to make fast decisions without perfect data and course correct as needed.

Debajit 17 Dec 05

Interesting post :) That reminds me…

“Blocked? Plunge forth with ghastly ideas, dreadful songs, appalling paintings or unspeakable prose. Give yourself permission to suck. Iíd be surprised if the great didnít find its way out of that pitiful pile of poor.”

- Bruce DeBoer

Ryan Ripley 17 Dec 05

Great post. A couple of clear example of this is would be Microsoft and Apple. MS started out selling DOS and moved on to Windows. Apple started with hardware, went to software, and well… is kind of back into hardware (Ipod). I think its a matter of rolling with the punches, or treating a company as a living thing that grows, matures, and evolves with time. Great series of posts!

—Ryan

Ryan Carson 17 Dec 05

Hey everyone,

Thanks for the kind words. Glad you’re enjoying the series.

Everyone seems to be raising the point that you have to be comfortable with your business evolving as things change. I couldn’t agree more.

Brandon 17 Dec 05

Funny you should mention The Search - our company was featured as one of the main case studies. When the author called to interview us I didn’t think it was anything major - but it’s turned out to be a really popular book.

Back on topic… great series! I’ve been in business for years, but there are still some really good insights in these articles that can help anyone in business. Keep ‘em coming!

jm 18 Dec 05

I’d say a few of the comments are as on track as much as the article; well done. To articulate them in another fashion, I’d say the skill is actually spotting and implementing those ideas as they come along. ‘Learning to fail’ and ‘being comfortable with discomfort’ are both ways of saying that spotting good ideas and seizing them when your model is in place is better than waiting for the idea. A bird in the hand, so to speak.

For our small business, success over time is through the mechanism to implement ideas even more than the ideas themselves. That is, the ideas will run their course, hopefully with profit, and expire but the mechanism continues to pull in new ideas for revenue.

Marcus 18 Dec 05

Great post! As someone who is starting a couple of businesses, this definitely resonates with me.

What did you think of the book The Search? I just read The Google Story. It was decent, but I was disappointed that there wasn’t any real “insider” information—no interviews with the founders or information that wasn’t otherwise available online.

Dan Martin 18 Dec 05

> I think the other big misconception about big,
> successful companies is that they know what
> they are doing now.

Many big companies DO know what they are doing. They have enough money to do serious, high quality market research.

They also have a lot of money so they can take failures without blinking. They can try product after product, and see which works and which doesn’t.

They also let small companies do market research and new product development for them:

Small company SmallCo happens to develop a good product which is successful in the market. Then BigCo notices it, and makes a similar product. They already have a large and diverse distribution channel and lots of money to advertise, so they gain 90% of the market. This happens more often than you think.

What can SmallCo to fix this?

- understand the market better than BigCo

- be fast, adaptable, more agile than BigCo

- make a product several BigCo’s want and sell the company to one BigCo

mikepk 18 Dec 05

I’m a startup founder working on a product, versus a service/consulting, company. I’ve been posting bits of my startup philosophy and history as I’ve been working on it. I like this series a lot, keep it up Ryan. It’s nice to have some validation, since these posts seem to echo my posts in some, but not all, ways.

In one of my posts I included a quote from Olin Shivers from a presentation he gave at Paul Graham’s startup school (which was awesome). I think this quote is particularly relevant in the context of this discussion.

It also helps to have a high tolerance for feeling like a moron. If you want to be a fluent speaker of mandarin, the only path to fluency, to excellence, is clumsiness. You have to get out there and have a lot of really terrible conversations where you butcher the language with native speakers. Startups are like that, only more so. Ok, you have to be very comfortable residing… you will be residing permanently outside your comfort zone.

Reinier Meenhorst / Djust.nl 18 Dec 05

Hey.. I should wear this on a T-shirt at the office tomorrow:

“Get used to being uncomfortable and not knowing how things will turn out.”

Great post (again) - really starting to look forward to the _summit_ in London in februrary.

sb 18 Dec 05

the only path the fluency is clumsiness. that rocks.

Tim Almond 19 Dec 05

Great post, Ryan.

I think it’s very reassuring to realise that fear isn’t isolated to me. It’s also quite liberating.

Judy 19 Dec 05

This is great - seen it for the first time today. I left my job three weeks ago after working on what is now our business, as a hobby for the past 2 years. It is terrifying but that fear makes you work bloody hard. The changes you go through are immense. Already, in the first 3 weeks, we have changes our product focus as a result of feedback. I never thought we would deviate from our original concept but it has changed becasue that is what the customer wants.

Amr malik 19 Dec 05

Excellent post! I’m loving this series! (not to mention learnin’ me a thing or two.. :)

Stefan 20 Dec 05

Great post! Got some of my questions answered.

Johnnie 20 Dec 05

You know what..u guys give me inspiration to start making my numerous business plans a reality,damn the consequences and feelings of failure.Thanx a million and God bless..Today was my first day discovering this website,and it has given me high hopes.i sure will be a regular here.cheers.

Frank 20 Dec 05

Hope you don’t mind me chiming in. I have been self-emplolyed for 12 years and here is what I have learned.

What is worrying the heck out of you today will be forgotten in a few weeks. You will find new stuff to worry about and the old stuff will have been taken care of.

Don’t try to fix problems that are only out on the horizon. Work on today’s issues today. If you try to fix tomorrows issue today, you will feel overwhelmed. Think of all the dishes you will have to wash over the rest of your life…..it would fill a mansion. That would be something to worry about if you had to wash them today. But what about the dishes you really do have to wash today? That aint so bad. Your bills are the same. Are you worried about paying next quarters bills? What about todays? I bet you can pay todays.

Change. Keep changing. If you are doing the same thing 5 years from now you will be left behind. To change you must let go of old ways.

Negative thoughts are more powerful than positive ones. You must fight against the negative with everything you have. You can only think about one thing at a time. Think positive.

If you are worried out of your mind, consider this….JD Rockefeller, when starting out, once spent $150 unwisely….and had to go to bed with worry and stress over the mistake. Out of his vast fortune I doubt that $150 was worth the worry and stress.

It is better to have tried and failed than to wait and die untested.

You never know what is just around the bend…..we have been saved several times by seeming miracles.

Sorry for rambling.

Nancy 21 Dec 05

Great conversation going on here. I’ve been working very hard the past year on my start-up - haven’t made a penny yet and have been living on practically zilch but expect to realize a sizeable reward for all my work without pay, within the next few months - ha, ha, It’s ABOUT TIME!!! From the beginning I’ve told myself it’s do or die. Staying focused on the end results has kept me going - I’ve learned a key is to be positive - lose the fear and forge ahead, daily. Whatever problems pop up you’ll be able to handle as they happen.

Frank 21 Dec 05

Debby,

Pay yourself first. Years could go by with you being last in line. Don’t let it happen to you.

One who has been there.

Frank

farih 24 Dec 05

Good works I have started my business a year now and still waiting for good days to come and i still beleive they will come
thank you for a good work you are doing merry christmas to everyone and happy new year 2006

Lynde 25 Dec 05

Someone here said fear of success. In my case that is just the point. No one expects anything from you if you fail. And most people will give you plenty of sympathy. But when you succeed then a ladder is put at your feet and you have to climb and give and climb and hope the rungs don’t break. Oh, but what a view you could be missing if you don’t try.

Allan 29 Dec 05

Sort of off topic, but I always get inspired when I see that new American Express Open commercial where the guy said he was tired about living in fear of his CURRENT job - and it’s true. You come in to work day after day at a company trying to cut expenses and you fear that you may be the next one out the door.

I’m working on a startup now, and at 23, I’m a bit lost about where to start. But I know I’d rather fear failing on my own than having someone else kick me out the door.

If anyone has a link to that commercial - can you post it… i’ve been looking for it all day :)

Glenn 08 Jan 06

After spending the last nine months working on my own business here’s my own 2 cents worth.. you may start with a USP that you think fits the market - but after working with my first clients I’ve had to modify my USP to better meet the market.

And that’s the point I would like to make, although you may have a very clear idea when you start your business, it will ultimately be your first customers that help shape it.

Francesco 10 Jan 06

Good conversation, thank you all. Iím starting right now and Iím TERRYFIED. About a number of things: failing, not being able to find a regular job after Iíll fail (Iím oldish), appearing like an unreliable person to all my friends and family, making promises that I wonít be able to meet and screwing my customers, and so on. Many things written here are so right: it is a gamble, your initial project is not likely to succeed, if you come up with a decent idea it will be rapidly copied and improved by big fish who have money, skills, brand, distribution resources enough to flatten you before you cough - think risk management. It is so much easier for those who simply start by offering a traditional service, if you have a good idea to improve your offer you can relaxedly try it, actually I had also thought of starting by purchasing some old store. I thank Seth Godin for a breathe of air, somewhere he wrote that if you do a good work, are careful with your money and are patient enough you are likely to achieve at least some turnover. And then, you only live once.

Julie 10 Jan 06

Jeez, I can’t agree more! This topic really came at the right time. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

My small business colleagues and I have always said “get comfortable with being scared”…or another favorite is “just say yes to the work and figure it out once you land the deal”. Either way, the back of my head can explode if I think about it too much.

SA 11 Jan 06

Great Post!
Just to show how much this post inpired me. I was at the threshold of making a decision to move to a startup with a great idea and a good number of customers. But was in a HUGE dilemma because my current place was doing extremely well. And I also had a competing offer from a top software company offering a 20% pay raise!!. I am now sure I am going to the startup. Period. Gosh its scary as hell. But I sure hope I will at least learn a lot of new things.

SA 11 Jan 06

Great Post!
Just to show how much this post inpired me. I was at the threshold of making a decision to move to a startup with a great idea and a good number of customers. But was in a HUGE dilemma because my current place was doing extremely well. And I also had a competing offer from a top software company offering a 20% pay raise!!. I am now sure I am going to the startup. Period. Gosh its scary as hell. But I am sure I will at least learn a lot of new things at the very least.

Sushil Kumar Dwivedi 12 Jan 06

Simply fantastic.

Randy Brewington 29 May 06

Excellent Post

I know exactly what your saying, about being scared. I was that person some time ago, but now I have built a strong support team of people that I rely. So I’m capable of shaping my ideals, by receiving feedback on what moves I’m about to make next. That along has inspired me to start my own company again. This time I will start small and take neccessary steps and make the musted needed plans that support my ideals so that I have a blue print to follow. Use that blue print to get going and be open to make the neccessary changes to improve my plan.

tison 07 Jun 06

Yet another unbelievable article.

It’s tough enough around this industry and this world, with all the possibilities and reasons why we shouldn’t jump into the water, why we shouldn’t take a risk. It’s great to see such a glimmer of light into what could be if we just focus on our dreams.

I think its time I jumped.

natasha kay 11 Jun 06

please help if you can! we need a new way to sell our products. if you can help or have ideas,before our lives fall apart please let us know any suggestions.my email is : nkayhazou@cox.net 619-307-9446 thank you in advance or work 858-565-8068 #204 thank you ,natasha kay

Paul 12 Jul 06

Great points Ryan. Microsoft (an other companies) continually have patches and updates to their software. I am sure MS expects to nail down a lot of imperfections before launch, but “perfect” software was not the goal—it was launching a successful product and continually refining it “on the fly.”

Paul 12 Jul 06

Great points Ryan. Microsoft (an other companies) continually have patches and updates to their software. I am sure MS expects to nail down a lot of imperfections before launch, but “perfect” software was not the goal—it was launching a successful product and continually refining it “on the fly.”

liz 10 Aug 06

This definetly is a inspirational read.One gets so caught up in thoughts like ‘if i do manage to do this, am i really going to succeed?’ we really sometimes turn to take our own abilities/capabilities or talents etc. for granded.Its at times hard to even explore/put in practice your abilities with all negative vibes but i guese one should never allow this things to mind.They say aim for the moon if you miss atleast you’ll lend amongst the stars!!!!!

liz 10 Aug 06

This definetly is a inspirational read.One gets so caught up in thoughts like ‘if i do manage to do this, am i really going to succeed?’ we really sometimes turn to take our own abilities/capabilities or talents etc. for granded.Its at times hard to even explore/put in practice your abilities with all negative vibes but i guese one should never take this things to mind.They say aim for the moon if you miss atleast you’ll lend amongst the stars!!!!!

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