Quit hanging out with unicorns

It always amuses me when people in the startup space talk about Unicorns as something to aspire to – an imaginary creature thats more fiction than fact.

Let’s face it, the guys and girls you want to meet and hang out with are the Rhinos, hard nosed motherfuckers that everyone respects, they’re basically armoured unicorns.

Joking aside, we need to have a proper conversation about the biggest challenge to startups; the ever insidious industry that’s developing around entrepreneurship and the biggest culprit of all – the overload of  ‘startup events’. It should go without saying, but unfortunately it needs saying –  as a startup founder, every meeting invitation, every event opportunity must be met with a single question – if I accept this invitation is my business better off as a consequence? Not every event is a waste of time but 95% of them are.

Here’s the most honest I can be about this – there is no loyalty card stamps for startup events, attending ten doesn’t get you a free cup of anything, except an eventual industry reputation for being unfocussed, hard truth maybe but hard to disagree with. If you’re spending anything close to a % of your time attending startup events, you are failing (and not in a good, flounders sort of way).

Every single startup business is very different, that’s the unique characteristic that makes it an investable opportunity. It’s also what makes it very hard to learn on the job. One of the worst possible mindsets that a startup founder can get into is thinking that generalised collective learning is a good idea, you have to focus on the problems and challenges facing YOUR business, not some sort of general ‘one size fits all solution’ which is usually the best that most startup events can deliver. The events that are valuable are the ones that before you attend you can clearly see the opportunity to learn or solve some issue you’re having and in these cases the shared experiences of others in the same situation can be very valuable.

Sit back and look seriously at the industry. You can directly correlate the successful businesses that are growing with their lack of attendance at startup events. Sure you’ll see their founders at events every now and again, but I guarantee it’s because that particular event is an opportunity for them, something about it delivers a clear benefit for them. They’re making strategic decisions to devote time to that event instead of the million other things on their plate that day. They arrive on time, leave on time and usually head back to work. And it’ll be one of a dozen events/entries on their calendar that day.

I’ve been lucky enough to see it first hand – the best startup CEO’s (both national and international) that I’ve been fortunate enough to meet are always that way. In the wings or greenroom backstage, getting that last email done before they get on stage, that last line of code, that last investor call. Coming off stage, there’s that urgency to get back to action and avoid hanging around that sometimes (unintentionally) comes across a tad rude, but here’s the simple truth – there just aren’t enough hours in the day to be a successful entrepreneur and you need every minute you have. Urgency and action are brilliant traits for anyone in startups at any level to have.

Sure there are some events out there that are ‘entry level’ events – startup weekends, hackathons, things of that nature but a lot of them are like the X-Factor’s of the industry – entertaining distractions where there’s a one in a million shot of a lucky break. But treat them like that optimistic distractions, social time, time off and away from your business. But don’t think that they count as ‘work’, no investor or customer will, so why should you?

All the things we talk about in terms of networking – sales opportunities, hiring opportunities, investment opportunities DO NOT come about because of event attendance, they come about as a result of having a reputation for action. If the following statement is news to you, then very seriously reconsider the path you’re on, but here goes – during a great recent conversation with Will Prendergast of Frontline VC, he mentioned to me that one of the key characteristics that Frontline look for when they’re investing is a strong bias towards action. That means an attitude of do, not think, actually go and carry out an action that will prove or disprove whatever you’re questioning instead of  just sitting around wondering where you’re going to potentially find the right answer.

It’s really what separates successful entrepreneurs from dreamers, a bias towards action. Most of the time it’s trying and failing, but learning something and then trying again. But it’s all about trying and doing. There is no silver bullet, there is no foolproof scheme that will guarantee your startup success. If you’re hanging around the Startup Industrial Complex hoping that you’ll eventually be indoctrinated into a secret circle who will reveal to you the secret handshake of success it ain’t there.

Think of it this way – if you’re extremely wealthy and go out and buy an extremely expensive McDonalds franchise, guess what you get for the privilege? Six months of working on the front line! Even McDonald’s know that business success depends on its leaders being in the trenches learning absolutely everything about their business – on site, with customers, not in some ivory tower somewhere. Leaders show up, leaders lead, leaders work harder than anyone else in the business and they work on the unpleasant stuff that no-one else wants to touch.

Next time you’re thinking about that startup event, pinch yourself and think – is there really nothing else that needs doing today? Could I schedule research calls with customers? Could I talk to my CTO about the product schedule?  Could I update my Investors and see how they could help me out with this issue I’m having? If all of those are covered, here’s a mad idea – spend time with your family, significant other, or friends, you’ll probably benefit more from that.

Your time is the most precious resource your startup has, use it properly.  


I've spent a lot of time starting, scaling and building businesses. Now I'm helping others start and scale theirs through REPUBLIC OF WORK and BUILTINCORK.

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