I have lot of respect for Marc Andreessen. He is a techno-optimist and visionary as well as very clear and opiniated thinker. No one can predict the future, but he gives it a fair shot for some things, and I will listen when he tries. I suggest checking his archival blog for productivity and startup logistics resources, and some of his podcast appearances to learn more about how he thinks (e.g. Conversations with Tyler #152).
When Marc Andreessen gives advice for how to identify good founders, or how to become one, it’s good to take a note. Here are the major points he discusses in the excerpt above:
Characteristics of a great founder
The conversation starts quite funny, when being asked what advice he would give to aspiring startup founder, Marc says, that he cannot really give any, because the really great founders don’t listen to advice. That is a catchy way to put it, but it intuitively seems true. Marc argues that founders who need to be guided by hand towards company creation are likely better off doing something else.
In another catchy statement he highlights that there really is not a good way to reference check star-up founders who have not run a company before. The right reference you look for is “I would go work for that person”, but that’s not something the referees would be commonly thinking of saying.1
Other characteristics he mentions are being smart, energetic, and courageous. Where the last one, he argues, is a choice (more on this below).2
What is it like to start a company
The entrepreneurial career is often romanticized, pictured almost as a discovery quest of new continent or planet (from there the oft-advertised imagery of spaceships, astronauts, and other explorers). The founder is depicted as someone with clear vision, leading an enthusiastic team towards a shared goal, which is some combination of world being a better place and everyone on the team affording a large house and a sports car (or a high-end caravan and a boat, if that’s your thing) just few years down the line, while enjoying weekly Friday happy hours and yearly company outings. While I think this is helpful to make more people attentive to the possibility of pursuing entrepreneurial career, it is also vital for exactly these people to realize that it’s mostly nothing like that.3
Marc Andreessen comments that the reality for founders is basically people repeatedly saying “no” to you, often followed by some version of “never” and “you are stupid”. “No, I won’t buy your product”, “No, I won’t leave my cushy job in a big company to go work for you”, “No, we won’t run a story about your company on social media”, are just some of the many options of how one can be rejected. Rejection is painful, it does take quite some training to prevent it from having you feel like sh*it for a week after receiving one, and you will never become completely immune to taking it personally.4
If you think you think that accepting one rejection blow after another is something you could deal with 5 – think of doing that, while grinning from cheek to cheek, joyfully welcoming your employees with a smile and chat about their wedding preparation plans, while also sharing enthusiasm and your vision with everyone from the janitor to your prospective funders. How easy does that sound? (Sorry to hear about your own cancelled engagement by the way! It turns out that with 80-hour work weeks there is little time left for great dates!)
Clearly, starting a company is not a smooth ride, so you may even get some strange sense of gratitude once it goes under, which, what a plot twist turning THIS into a happy ending!, it most likely will.
Who should start a company
Having read the above, you must be wondering – is a great founder also a sociopath? Well kind of. According to Marc Andreessen, people who start companies should have a irresistible desire to see their solution on the market, a burning feeling that they cannot do otherwise but startup. This will hedge them against the many adversities they are bound to encounter – having their private life as well as their perceived self-worth challenged, they can always console themselves with the reminder that there was no other way (here you go, if your startup fails, you can become a stoic philosopher!).
Burning desire seems important but will burn really really bright and fast if the tech is not solid. The would-be successful founders must have a great and specific technical product idea. No one should start a company on a vague vision of “transforming XYZ”, ”solving XYZ crisis”, or “making XYZ more sustainable”, no matter how noble or important this might seem. In fact, its probably better to forget about any grand vision until you have a working product that you are selling at a profit. You can get fancy with visions afterwards.
Great and specific technical product idea is not a holy grail unless it also checks the boxes for the size of the opportunity, the product-market fit and you are able to build a great team around it, but all these topics are beyond the scope of this post.
Does this leave you excited about entrepreneurship? Congratulations, you seem to be a masochist with large pain tolerance. The world needs you to go out there and get your hands dirty making some great products. Before you do so, you can learn more by reading Marc Andreessen’s Guide to Startups. I will keep blogging on this and related topics using variety of resources, so subscribe to stay updated and keep learning.
Does this leave you thinking entrepreneurship is not for you? Congratulations, you may have saved yourself some grey hair and couple of good friends. Maybe more importantly (because reading this post you may be biased to starting up), it should give you an idea what place you want to be in to be comfortable being serous about staring up,
Final Note: It is not my intention to leave you thinking that starting up means giving up on any personal life. This tone was chosen to accentuate some ideas in relatable way. While it’s certainly possible to weigh heavily on the side of work in exchange for the private, people who are prone to do so will likely do it as employees as well. Building a sustainable business means building an environment people enjoy coming back to, and to become a great leader, you must accept the imperative to make your mental and physical wellbeing a priority. Finally, running a business is empowering and this can have large positive ramifications across all aspects of one’s life.
Unless you explicitly ask them for it, of course! (Say individual X starts an enterprise, on scale of 1-10: how likely do you think they are going to be successful? How likely would you be to join their team when offered the opportunity to do so?) ↩
I am of somewhat different opinion and believe it’s more of a habit as much as being energetic is one. More than that, I would also say that most people have large capacity to be both, energetic and courageous, and that making this a habitual state is mainly a subtractive process (of eliminating distractions, limiting beliefs and inner conflicts). ↩
I am NOT speaking from personal experience. I do however have some second-hand experience through friends, and I am attentive to writing from founders that is on the internet. If you disagree and your startup actually does feel like haven on earth, I want to hear from you about what you are doing differently (and whether you are hiring). ↩
It’s the, in this case mostly unfortunate, condition of human mind, that we will be struck more heavily by negative emotions and events than by the positive ones (that’s why all the news outlets seem like a catastrophe reel). While this was super-helpful to increase chances of survival of our species (finally a miracle you can truly put yourself behind), it is mostly maladaptive in today’s environment. Knowing this is only slightly helpful at moments when you are questioning your value as a human being after being rejected on some microscopically tiny aspect of your existence. ↩
And you really should not say this before having some evidence to attest to it. If you don’t have, it’s still fair you want to try, but I would suggest collecting it with Rejection Therapy before starting a company. Stakes are much lower and it’s also much more fun. ↩
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