Seeing through “schleps blindness”
Paul Graham's latest essay spread through the start-up world like wildfire. He explains why we shy away from big audacious ideas and why younger founders are often more successful than their older counterparts, due to the ignorance and naivety that fuels young and first-time entrepreneurs.
He calls it “schlep blindness”
“There are great start-up ideas lying around unexploited right under our noses. One reason we don't see them is a phenomenon I call ‘schlep blindness’.
Schlep was originally a Yiddish word but has passed into general use in the US. It means a tedious, unpleasant task,” says Graham.
Here are a few ways to make the inevitable schlep, less of a schelp.
Founders are often in their early to mid-20s. They don't have the life experience of those in their 30s and 40s. They haven't had to push shit uphill before and underestimate what it takes.
Like the often said, but undervalued adage of "If I knew then what I know now..." would you do things differently the second time around?
If you are older, the key take-away here is you don’t not necessarily need o do things differently the second time around.
No matter how old you are or how successful you become, if it works for the young founders, then older and wiser founders should tackle challenges head on with the same level of naivety, even if it seems audacious and foolish at the time.
This is what Steve Jobs was trying to tell us to do at the end of his Stanford commencement speech.
Graham explains the psychology of this thinking beautifully, advising entrepreneurs to, "Stay hungry, stay foolish".
Don't start until you have a big idea
So many founders start working on things because they want to be a founder, however I think it’s smarter to favour the sidelines until you've found a big idea in a large market that you are passionate about. Spend time reading, networking, visiting incubators, watching presentations and so forth.
Don't settle until it feels right. You'll know when its right because the size of the idea will keep you up at night and you'll have no other choice but to make it happen. Anything less may be a distraction and unworthy of pursuit.
Surrender yourself to the fact that it’s going to be painstakingly tough. Surround yourself with people who love the schlep.
Ensure your team are focused and good at their craft and passionate about creating something great. It's not a schlep if you love what you do – most of the time.
There are always going to be ups and downs, it's inevitable, it comes with the turf. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.
Have a sense of urgency, but don't rush
Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Page all came from humble beginnings. Vinod Khosla started with nothing in India and begged his way into Stanford. He now visits his home town in India on a private jet.
So much is achievable in a lifetime, even half a lifetime. Think big and think long-term. We often fail to realise that there is a lot of time to get things right.
Have a sense of urgency but don't rush. It took four years for a competitor to arise to challenge Facebook (Google+).
You might think people are chasing your tail but it's not a reason to think small.
Don't think about the exit
Build something that has the ingredients to be acquired – but with the mindset that you'll never sell it. When you are building a long-term business you focus on different things to when you build and flip.
Break down audacious tasks into small goals
Schleppers are doers. They understand that life rewards action. They turn mountains into molehills.
Break massive complex problems into small achievable parts and don't think of it as one big scary task. Just get things done. Nothing great was every created quickly, things take time.
Graham advises founders to think big; to solve audacious problems, not lofty ones. In some form or another every VC website mentions that they are looking for "highly disruptive, scalable business models that solve meaningful problems in $1 billion-plus markets". You should be aiming to do the same.
Whether your business is destined for greatness or mediocrity, it can take three years to find out, and for this reason you should pick a big market.
Entrepreneurs often forget that they are in this to make money and making money takes time, especially if you are starting with nothing, as most start-ups do. If you're committed to building a company (not a social app that gets 20,000 downloads then fizzles) then you have to maintain a long-term view from the outset.
All start-ups take time to get off the ground. The product build will take six to nine months, product/market fit iterations will take another six to nine months, then you can start scaling the business, which can go on forever.
If you've done all this work after three years but your total addressable market is a $100 million market and it’s already competitive, then chances are you'll find it difficult to build a sizable business.
That is why you need to think big and think different so that you are first to market with an innovative solution.
You want to get to the three year mark and realise you've only just started on your journey because the market is that massive.
Keep up-skilling yourself
Do stuff yourself. Mark Cuban started by setting up computer networks. Bill Gates spent 10,000 hours coding before he started Microsoft.
You're not wasting time if you're building your skills base, even if you think you are. You're also creating a fallback if things don't work out.
There is no better way to learn and to understand the possibilities of your craft than to apply yourself to it. Get books, manuals, download tutorials. Start with tiny projects. A one page website with a form. Then add to that.
You'll surprise yourself in a shorter time than you think, and it won't feel like schlep. Learning new skills along the way adds another dimension of productivity to the journey.
If you are scared and feel like you've bitten off more than you can chew, then that is a good thing, because you will grow from it and you will make it work, especially if you have no alternative fallback.
It means you've been foolish enough to dare to do something that most others have not and for that reason you’re already ahead of the curve.