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The Myth of the All or Nothing Startup

June 16, 2014

Posted by: Monica Selby

The Myth of the All or Nothing Startup

Do you ever think that startup culture is really a cult?

We have our supreme leaders (successful founders like Zuckerberg and verbose investors like Andreessen).

We have our uniform (skinny jeans, “vintage” t-shirts, Warby Parker glasses).

We have our Kool-Aid (Red Bull, craft beer, and caffeine pills, among others).

And we have our chants:

     -Move fast and break things.

     -Go big or go home.

     -Change the world.

One of the most common assumptions in startup culture is that you have to go “all in” to your startup in order to be successful. It’s all or nothing--forget the rest of your life and shoring up your own financial future. If you don’t live and breathe this one company, you’re doomed to failure and mediocrity. I call BS.

Eggs and Baskets

Let’s start with the most basic question here: what if your startup fails?

I know. It won’t. Never mind that 75% of venture-backed companies fail (not even accounting for bootstrapped or otherwise funded startups). Of course, YOURS won’t fail because you’re the exception.

Well, here’s the thing: we can’t all be exceptions. Life--and startups--is not the same as our everyone-gets-a-trophy grade school days. Real life isn’t like high school, where you basically just have to show up to graduate.

At some point, you’re going to fail.

If you’ve put all your proverbial eggs into one startup basket, that failure is going to hurt a lot more than if you spread  or resources around a little.

Learn Fast

One of the admirable tenets of the startup cult is the focus on learning by doing. Everyone knows that the best way to test something is to--well, test it. Try it and see, and then figure out what you’ve learned from the process.

When you spread your risk out, you’ll discover that you learn exponentially faster. The challenge in one venture will easily find a solution from another--a solution you wouldn’t have known about if you were “heads down.”

Recently I had dinner with two new business partners. We’re all involved in a few different ventures together in various combinations, and throughout dinner the conversation ranged from our main partnership to each of our various projects.

Because of our plethora of experiences, we were able to help each other out, give reasonable advice, and think of people we could offer introductions to. Things we couldn’t have done if we had each spent the last 10 years only building ONE thing.

Work Hard AND Smart

I am not suggesting you don’t work hard or don’t focus. We all have our own individual bandwidth, and there is such a thing as too many projects.

The best thing to do is to think like a lean startup (another cult aphorism!). Take on a variety of projects that suit your life and industry. Test your assumptions about them. Keep the ones that work and ditch the ones that don’t. When your entire career and future isn’t wrapped up in one idea, it’s easier to let things go and focus on what works.

There will be an ebb and flow that develops in your entrepreneurial life. Of course there are times when one project will take precedence and the others will have to wait or maintain themselves.

By the way, investors do this all the time. It’s called a “portfolio.” You won’t find a career investor who chooses to go “all in” with one company. They spread their funds around, mitigating risk and increasing the odds of success.

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