Step 1: Believe in your idea

This is a blog series about starting a digital health startup.  The first post was here.

The first thing, and it sounds obvious, but the first thing is being willing to work on your idea.

You are a busy person, and you have many activities fighting for your attention. The first question, then, is: are you willing to devote a portion of your time to this idea? Many people have ideas, but they’re busy, and they never get to working on their idea. Adding a log to an existing fire takes work, yes, but rubbing two sticks together to start a fire takes a lot of work. Keeping a locomotive moving requires energy, but getting a stopped locomotive to move its first inch takes a lot of energy. These two analogies approximate the ratio of work you’ll be undertaking compared to working for an established organization, so step one is deciding whether you’re interested in starting down that path.

And in the beginning it’s often just you, anyway. If you’re lucky, you met your future teammates at school, or at work, or at a hackathon. But even if you do have teammates, the work remains solitary. You are probably (I hope!) the only one with a particular skill or ability, and you’re doing the work yourself. And even if the others on your team are as motivated as you are, you still have to find that inner drive (the “intrinsic motivation”) to work on a project with minimal chance of your work becoming anything beyond a series of slide decks that no one reads. You have to believe that you’re going to succeed, trust that what you’re doing has a possibility of becoming worthwhile. Because if you don’t, you won’t do the work, and your idea won’t go beyond the idea.

In one of his (many) brilliant essays, Paul Graham uses the analogy of caring for a baby to describe the early stages of starting a startup. I love that analogy, but I’d take it a step further: what if you didn’t know the baby would turn into an adult? With a baby, in general if you care for it eventually the baby will grow into a toddler, a middle schooler, and an adult. The early stages are difficult, but the result is reasonably predictable.

With a startup, however, there are a few problems. First, you don’t know what to do. A newborn baby just wants to eat, sleep, or excrete. A newborn startup needs a product, a market, money, legal advice, patent protection, a team, press, mentors, office space, incubation, customers, champions, business cards, a logo, a website, tee shirts, a ping pong table, and a mission statement. Where do you even begin?

Second, a newborn startup is likely to die. I’ve heard that 90 percent of startups fail. What if your baby had a nine in ten chances of dying within a year? How would that change how you approached parenthood?

So for these reasons, and more, it takes a lot of intrinsic motivation to devote energy to your idea. And again, in the beginning it’s only you. You’re the one who writes the description to pitch at the hackathon, and you’re the one who emails a potential mentor to ask for coffee. The startup is just the germ of an idea, and it’s fragile, and you’re alone.

You have to be willing — eager — to do the first bit of work. If you won’t do it, if you aren’t sufficiently enthusiastic about your idea to devote your time to a first draft of a slide deck or a first blog post or a first recipe, the likelihood is no one else will be, either. You have to have…conviction…in your idea, and you have to act on that conviction.

A word on first steps: it’s really hard to get something going. Even now I find myself procrastinating at tasks I don’t want to do. I check email, browse Boing Boing, eat a snack. We all do this, and I think the urge to procrastinate lives deep within all of us. Maybe it’s a deep-seeded survival mechanism or something. I won’t try to kill that urge, but I will offer two pieces of advice.

First, just start. Literally begin writing words, any words. Open a blank TextEdit or PPT file, and begin to type. Just start doing…something. It almost doesn’t matter, as long as it’s active. Checking email and browsing news articles are passive tasks; you’re absorbing something someone else has done. To create something new requires activity, and the hardest part is often overcoming that initial inertia. So overcome it by just beginning to do something, anything, that requires you to type / write / shape / move.

Second, forget about perfection. Eventually your product will be perfect. On day one it’ll be terrible. In general you have to be bad at something before you can be good at it. The first five people who read your business plan / try your app will likely not get what you’re doing. Your work will be seriously flawed, and the people to whom you present will not be able to help themselves from rolling their eyes at you.

You cannot do anything about this. In the beginning you don’t know how to be good, so you’ll necessarily be bad. The only thing you can do is have the confidence to make a second version. Version 1 was bad, and version 2 will also be bad. But it’s a little less bad, because some of the things you’ve messed up in v1 you’ve fixed. Of course there are new problems, and some of the old ones haven’t been fixed. But there are a few fewer problems. By version 3 you’re even better, and by version 6 you have something good. But version 1 was terrible, and your friends literally told you you were stupid and offensive. “How can you think people want this thing?” “You obviously don’t understand how people think.” “I just can’t believe this is a problem for most people.” I’ve heard it all, all in the past two days. Get used to it.

Listen to the reasons for the criticism. Try to uncover what it is they don’t like. Is it your pitch, or your tone, or your underlying assumptions? Do they dislike how your idea makes them feel? Do they think you’re naive?

I’m reminded of a quote (sent to me by my friend Michael) after one such evening.

Too many of us think of ideas as being singular, as if they float on the ether, fully formed and independent of the people who wrestle with them. Ideas, though, are not singular. They are forged through tens of thousands of decisions, often made by dozens of people.  –Ed Catmull

Take their feedback. Don’t be discouraged from continuing to work on your idea, but also don’t ignore their criticism. They’re right, in a way. If they don’t like your idea, there’s a reason for it. Figure out that reason, and then decide if it’s something you want to do something about. Sometimes you intentionally ignore your critics, but often the best thing to do is to incorporate their criticism, and to find a solution to fix it.

Your job as an entrepreneur is primarily problem solving. When a friend tells you she doesn’t like your idea, the “problem” is probably buried in her explanation. It’s your job to find the problem and to find a solution.

So the first thing, and for all intents and purpose the only thing in the beginning, is your conviction and willingness to work on your idea. Really no one will help you to the extent you need help, even your best friend or spouse, and in the beginning most people won’t even really understand what you’re doing, so they won’t believe you. And if people don’t understand your vision, they will always underestimate it, and they will (unintentionally, mostly) knock you down.

Next week we’ll look closely at the next step, making something useful.

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