Early reflections on starting my own business (Part 1)

I have fancied starting a business for a very long time.  

Finally after getting my green card, building a financial safety net, learning by working at other businesses, and being inspired by the recent breakthroughs in AI, I took the plunge recently! 

I'm sharing some reflections from my first few months. 

Fair warning: all of these may change over time as I experience more and grow wiser. 

1. Businesses are incredibly hard

This is repeated often, but we still often underestimate or forget it as we are constantly inundated with victorious stories of very, very few survivors. 

Finding and sustaining the right partners, ideas, customers, business models, teams, and investors is a long and tough journey. By default, your business is dead. You have to will it into existence and life every day with perseverance, smarts, support, and luck. There are many ups and downs, and tricky and hard decisions along the way. 

I now empathize and understand why founders have an extremely high upside and satisfaction, even compared to early employees, because they endure a high-risk, high-effort, always-on, and incredibly difficult path to go from 0 to 1.

2. The number of shots and time in the game matters

In low-probability, hard, and non-linear games like startups, you increase your chances by staying in the game for longer, taking multiple shots, and learning/improving each time. That's probably the only way to succeed.

When I started, I thought I'd give myself ~3 months to create a revenue-generating business or quit. But I quickly realized that was a silly strategy as the timeline is unpredictable and it takes a few months/years/cycles to even understand the game and get good at it. So I took on a part-time consulting gig to extend my runway. You can also choose to raise funding or pursue your business on the side. 

Before you play the game, be realistic about whether you are set up for success and how you can stay in the game for longer. 

As Sam Altman reflects, "So much of being a good entrepreneur is about not giving up and staying determined."

3. Business should be primarily an act of passion, invention, and service 

Many people, including myself, are attracted to starting a business because of the potential glory or wealth. Bad idea. 

Most businesses, most of the time aren't glorious or prosperous. And they may never be. In fact, the odds of prosperity are much higher if you climb the corporate ladder at an established company, and that can be enjoyable and meaningful too. So if you are counting on glory or wealth, you will feel defeated very quickly and feel like you are wasting your life.  

As Elon Musk put it, “Running a start-up is like chewing glass and staring into the abyss. After a while, you stop staring, but the glass chewing never ends”

Start a business if you are really passionate about solving a problem, serving a group of people you care about, or creating (or changing) something you deeply believe needs to exist. 

Start only if you are going to enjoy a grueling challenge and the growth that comes with it. Also, start a business only if you're curious and passionate about the process of starting and running a business. 

Doing something that's truly aligned with your passions, drive, and values is incredibly fulfilling. The act of inventing, and creating something worthy out of nothing is also amazing. These motivations are much more intrinsic, realistic, and sustained for longer. You are more likely to enjoy and persevere through the day-to-day, the ups and downs, and the failures. 

4. There are no shortcuts. Make things that people want, be strategic, and be nice.

Your business will only succeed if you do these 3 things: 

  • Create something valuable and differentiated that the market truly needs.
  • Acquire and retain customers in a sustainable and scalable way.
  • Generate profits and have sufficient cash flow to sustain the business. 
In jargony but more complete terms, keep improving the Product-Market-Channel-Model-Founder fit. 

You only get there by understanding your market deeply, talking to potential customers, choosing the right problems and solutions, validating, continuously, and quickly iterating, improving, or pivoting. 

Don't trick yourself into thinking you have something when you don't (it is hard to know!). Don't get distracted by shortcuts and vanity metrics like acquiring lots of disinterested users, raising VC funding, or dreaming of getting acquired. 

5. You will fail and learn a LOT quickly; having a growth mindset and self-confidence is key. 

Startups also give you a chance (and force you) to learn incredibly quickly across a broad range of skills. You will pursue bad ideas or unsuitable partners. You will bomb customer and investor pitches. You will make mistakes and learn how to build products, test, and iterate. You have to learn how to sell, advertise, and monetize. You learn a ton about finance, legal, operations, and compliance. You will learn how to assess, attract, hire, and fire people and partners. You meet and learn from other smart founders and investors. 

If you like to learn and grow, this can be incredibly fun. You have to be "good at learning" - not be frazzled by mistakes or failure, seek good advice and expertise, reflect and learn with honesty, humility, and curiosity, and not repeat your mistakes. On the other hand, if you get easily overwhelmed or always want to be right and successful, this will suck.

6. Choose the right partners and advisors

You may spend more time and emotions with your co-founders or partners than with your spouse! You will be going through thick and thin, walking into a mysterious and dangerous jungle. 

You need people who you can count on to support you and who you want to support, regardless of how tough things get. You need those who you trust to act in your combined interest and also have good judgment. You need a team who can complement your skills, weaknesses, and temperament. You need people who are also driven by passion or a sense of service, aligned with your values and work ethics. 

You need people you can work well with, "fight well with", ideate and build on ideas, and make tough decisions with. You need people who inspire and energize you, not drain you. You need people who you enjoy spending time with. You need people who will grow and adapt to the business and you.

7. Self-care, health, stability, confidence, and support systems are extremely important

Startups are dangerous. Because by default, startups will take a toll on your physical and mental health, relationships, and hobbies. Startups are endless and all-consuming. There's always more to do, plans to figure out, fires to fight, and problems to worry about. The ups and downs, uncertainty, and long hours can wreck your mental health.

You need to be disciplined, healthy, mentally, and financially strong even to start. It's even better if you have a supportive family, friends, and professional network.

Then you need to be even more thoughtful and disciplined to use your time effectively and prioritize areas in life that are important to you and give them time and energy. 

Exercising every day and taking time to spend with your loved ones, occasionally relaxing and enjoying what life has to offer, and pursuing a couple of other passions or pleasures are all no-brainers. Otherwise, you will burn out or look back with regret in 5 years for hollowing yourself in the pursuit of a low-probability game. 

This is a marathon, not a sprint. You perform better when you are calmer, healthier, and happier. Balance is important.