The following is adapted from Lost in Startuplandia.
Launching a startup is like scaling a mountain in that there’s a lot of planning that goes into the journey and a ton of things that can wrong if founders are not prepared. Even if we are prepared, there’s no denying that we’re in for a rough climb.
As founders, before we start our expedition, the first question we have to answer is: which mountain do we want to summit? There are infinite varieties: tall and steep, wide and meandering, or hidden in the clouds and shrouded in mystery.
Our mountain is out there. Once we choose it, we shouldn’t start packing up our gear just yet. There are four big questions we need to answer first that will keep us from scaling the wrong mountain for the wrong people and the wrong reasons.
Let’s explore these questions in more detail.
#1: Do We Have the Skills to Summit?
Not all summits are within the reach of all climbers.
Every year, my friend Lindsay Stevens heads to France to summit some insane mountain. What would put give me fits of terror, she finds “relaxing.”
Lindsay rock climbs when she’s not putting on the Rock the Green music festival. Years ago, Lindsay relied on hired help to handle the load-in for the bands, but their work fell short because they didn’t know what Lindsay knew. For things to run well, Lindsay had to do the work herself—including hopping on a forklift if needed!
Startups work the same way. Many require deep technical know-how, specialized licensing, or an advanced degree. When that’s the case, it’s critical that the founders have it. Otherwise, they’re dependent upon someone else to make the startup work.
What if our hired experts lose interest or no longer want to work with us? If the startup will fold without their involvement, this is not a mountain we can climb alone. We may be better off choosing a startup model where we can be more self-reliant.
#2: Does the World Need Us to Summit This Mountain?
Just because we have the skills and desire to summit a mountain doesn’t make the climb meaningful to others. We can love playing the accordion and have mad skills, but it doesn’t mean we’re going to be the next Lady Gaga. No matter how good we are, the world won’t care because it doesn’t want to hear the Lady Gaga of the accordion.
The good news here is that the world has a lot of needs. We need a cure for cancer, a better way to travel, a social media platform that doesn’t ruin our lives.
The key here is to align our passion and abilities with the needs of the world.
The bigger the world’s need we wish to meet, the more epic our quest. In many ways, it is this aspect of our vision that determines just how large our mountain is.
When the world cares about our mountain, it gives us a great lift. The media wants us to summit and we’re celebrated as heroes before we do anything meaningful.
Prospective investors are interested because we’re on a path they care about. Not only that, we get more leeway from everyone involved when the expedition runs into trouble.
Too often, we get ahead of ourselves. We believe that the mountain is so obvious and important that we charge ahead without validation. We say inane things like “Customers don’t know what they really want!” Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t.
The truth is, for a startup to have a chance, there must be a strong desire in the market for that innovation. It must solve a real and expensive problem cleanly, clearly, and repeatedly. If not, it is a “nice to have” but not a “must have.”
Said another way, is our product a vitamin or a painkiller?
If it’s not a painkiller, fogettaboutit.
#3: Do We Have Enough Fuel for the Expedition?
Passion is the fuel of the everyday. It is the inner drive that generates the fuel we need to summit. When we’re constantly replenished by our passion, each step we make is celebrated. We’re so grateful just to be on this journey. We greet rough spots and setbacks with “It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.” The expedition itself is the reward.
I cannot stress enough how important this is. As much as I love the mountain metaphor, any of us could climb many actual mountains by training for a couple of months and then heading up. Creating a startup is a much longer commitment.
Founders must have the passion to carry on in year five, ten, and beyond. Those who aren’t ready to dedicate their lives to this quest are mounting the wrong expedition.
Instead of passion, too many of us are fueled by a drive to prove ourselves to the world. “I’ll show them!” This was my primary fuel source for my first four startups. It works.
And in the startup world, it’s more the rule than the exception. That said, it’s a pretty sucky fuel source. It’s like powering a high-performance race car by pushing it.
Sheer grit and determination are required to make this fuel source work. It’s all about the summit, not the journey. Success on this expedition is binary.
Either we summit or we don’t. If we fail to summit, we fail period.
In my eyes, that’s a grim outlook. I’d rather be driven by passion, not a chip on my shoulder, and enjoy the climb, whether or not I reach the peak.
#4: What is Our Mission?
As founders, we have to think about why we’re climbing this mountain specifically? Answering this question is crucial. A solid sense of our personal mission cuts through the haze to become our guiding light. It helps us know if we’re going off course.
The more personal and meaningful, the better. When we know that what we are doing matters—genuinely makes a difference in the lives of others—it makes the trials of the entrepreneurial journey tolerable… hell, almost worth it.
In considering our mission, I believe it is essential to work to solve a problem with which we are intimately familiar. A source of inspiration can be a problem that has hurt and/or angered us in the past. Honestly, it’s a waste of time to work on anything that we don’t care about. We are selling ourselves short here. We will burn out.
I found my mission after my father’s company, Paper Machinery Corporation (PMC), had one of their machines reverse-engineered by a South Korean company.
PMC’s patents didn’t hold up internationally, so there wasn’t a damn thing they could do about their machines being copied and sold. The good news was that the South Korean company failed to get their model to perform as well as PMC’s. Without the actual specs in hand, the rival company’s engineers guessed wrong on some key calculations.
But what if that company had hacked PMC and stolen their CAD drawings? I thought. The theft of their engineering blueprints was a possibility.
That insight became the source of my personal mission for Sun Tzu Security. I went on to found the company and be at the dawn of a new industry, a year later.
When we focus on the problems we care deeply about, our mission keeps us motivated through the difficult times. My mission kept me going through the dotcom crash and then 9/11. I knew if we didn’t do the work, companies would go under and employees would lose their jobs. Without a personal mission, I might very well have given up.
For more advice on launching a startup, you can find Lost in Startuplandia on Amazon.