It’s a truth universally acknowledged that entrepreneurship can be a real bitch. Fun, yes, but really, really painful at times, too.
Blue Volcano Media has gone through a whirlwind of changes the past few months — some good, some not so good, all eye-opening. We’ve grown faster than I ever imagined we would, brought on lots of great clients, and learned lots of priceless lessons along the way about what it means to be a real, honest-to-goodness company. You know, the kind of company with employees, fancy business cards, even office space (twice!). We’ve had our share of losses as well as triumphs, and by golly, we even had a chance to pitch business to a Fortune 50 company. (We didn’t get it, but just being able to be within spitting distance of them with a proposal was inspiring enough. I now know what they mean about what an honor it is just being nominated. Although, really, I’m sure nothing beats actually winning.)
But growth has its perils, and we’ve been through that, too. Few people will tell you that growth, especially very rapid growth, can be as dangerous to a company as stagnation. Okay, growth can be exhilarating while stagnation can be hair-pulling, but growth also means strained resources, lots of late nights, personal sacrifices, and way more coffee than is really good for the human body. (Fortunately I’m really only good with 1 or 2 cafés au lait, and those are just Coffee Lites.)
Growth for me at Blue Volcano Media meant 4, sometimes 2 hours of sleep a night more than twice a week for weeks on end. Short tempers. (It’s really sad that, more often than not, your biggest supporters and the people closest to entrepreneurs — i.e., their families and friends — are often the brunt of their misplaced anger and frustration.) Poor diet. Pathetic nutrition. An almost obsessive perfectionism that somehow doesn’t improve over time. (Oh, the irony of that statement.)
The many, many stories of startups that end up as runaway successes paper over the weeks, months, sometimes years of toiling in the shadows of bigger rivals and more aggressive competitors while waiting desperately for the big payday. When it does come, the founders are often so hungry for validation and stability that they’ll take anything, if only to justify all the long days and even longer nights spent working on something that may or may not pan out, but boy, did it demand a lot of time away from home and hearth.
Growth can be perilous, as many Web 1.0 startup founders and VCs learned in the aftermath of the 1990s dot-com bubble. A lot of us seems to have forgotten that, even those of us who still remember what it was like to see stock options make us instant millionaires on paper, only to see the value of that paper dissolve along with our optimism.
Too-fast growth, combined with a laughingly un-charming naïvete and clumsy leadership, can lead to bad decisions, unwise hiring choices, and financial missteps that you may pay dearly for later. From the outside looking in, rapid growth can seem sexy and exciting, a movie-in-the-making with harsher lighting and less attractive people, but insiders know that it’s often quite the opposite, and that only the strong (or foolish?) survive.
Startups can get lucky and survive all of these unfortunate circumstances, of course, but as one of my favorite movie characters once said, “Bad luck [...] floats around. It’s got to land on somebody.” (Guess what movie!) It lands on every startup. Or just about every one. For every hotshot founder with his history of Mountain Dew-fueled late nights and meteoric rise to success, there are a hundred obscure nobodies scrabbling away, hoping to beat the long, long odds. (For math geniuses, a lot of tech startup founders don’t seem to understand statistics much.) Bad luck lands on even the best of us, though, and maybe even all of us, but on some, it lands harder, faster, sharper.
We’re a leaner company now, with some fresh bruises and a less ambitious plan of action. Actually, the plan of action consists of two words: Grow. Slow. I should probably add a 3rd word between them: Very. It will probably never become the tagline of an Aaron Sorkin film, but it suits us now. It’s all that we can manage and all we want to manage. And for many entrepreneurs, that should be more than okay.
[p.s. And yes, the affiliate ad in the big box on this page is different from the others elsewhere on this site for a reason. Let the tech guys have their Mountain Dew. Blue Volcano Media was built on a mountain of M&Ms.]