You should be trying to die

In Paul Graham’s classic essay “How Not to Die”, PG described success at a startup like this:

If you can just avoid dying, you get rich. That sounds like a joke, but it’s actually a pretty good description of what happens in a typical startup. It certainly describes what happened in Viaweb (the startup he sold to Yahoo!). We avoided dying till we got rich.

This “figure out how to survive and you will succeed” concept is phenomenal advice - simple yet powerful - and the entire post is worth reading. However, there’s a problem. I talk to founders/potential founders all the time who have internalized the “just keep swimming” mantra and I have realized they largely don’t understand what “surviving” means. In most situations, survival has less to do with the stubborn perseverance most people seem to automatically associate with “not dying” and more to do with the brutal destruction of bad ideas. In fact, it is more likely that what you should be focusing on is how to die, not how to survive.

Until you exit the “startup” phase of your company or project, you are primarily defined by what you don’t know rather than what you do. You don’t know if your idea is any good, you don’t know if people want what you’re making, you don’t know if you can build and lead the right team - you just don’t know anything! Your job is to take everything you think you know and put it through the most honest and efficient route to being disproven that you can possible think of. What survives that process will be a nugget of truth, something that you actually DO know. This is what actually must not be allowed to die, and everything before that, from the ideas to the composition of the team, must be destroyed and destroyed quickly.

If you’re a startup with seed funding, the best way to survive is to mercilessly kill all of your bad ideas and preconceived notions until you have something worth saving. Remember: seed funding mostly buys you time, and you can not waste that time on ideas or products that don’t actually make sense. Mattermark’s recent funding is a great example of how important this is. Danielle Morrill and co started off doing something incredibly different after their seed funding out of YC, but realized quickly their company was actually a zombie startup - a product with some traction but no future. Zombies need to be killed, quickly, which Danielle did and began working on something new. She validated the idea with a series of blog posts, and now it turns out she’s building a company with a real future. The key here is that she killed her first startup QUICKLY, before she ran out of time and funding - this is your only chance to actual “survive” the way PG is telling you to.

If you’re not funded, you need to be especially efficient in the massacre of bad ideas because almost everyone around you will blow smoke up your ass given the opportunity. “That is SUCH a good idea!” they will say in response to your elevator pitch. Your friends, family, even your mentors - they’re all going to love your idea. The problem is - they have no idea whether it’s good or not. Nobody does. They’re simply reacting to the cleverness of your idea and the passion with which you deliver it, neither of which are deterministic of quality in the market. You’ve got to get out there and find out for sure whether your idea is good in objective ways. Shipping a Quick MVP or doing a smoke test are both good ways to start, but just make sure you’re talking to real potential users and customers who can actually help you figure out if what you’re trying to build makes sense. Things to be looking out for that are solid validation of an idea worth saving: people asking if they can actually use what you’re building RIGHT NOW (and ideally pay for it) and people who already solve the problem you’re trying to solve but in a really complex way that they hate.

If surviving the zombie startup apocalypse will bring you great riches, then why don’t more people do it? Because it’s incredibly hard and counterintuitive, not just to entrepreneurs but to everyone else. There’s a serious external pressure to doing a startup. You want to prove to your friends and family that you were right, and going through the process of trying to prove that you were WRONG is too painful to consistently entertain. Remember: the zombie you’re trying to kill is you, and that’s a painful reality to face. Further, many investors don’t truly understand lean startup theory yet, and explaining to them why you’re moving on from the idea they invested in is especially scary. Still you have to do it - zombie startups won’t just kill you but they’ll kill those around you. They’ll devour employee and founder time and thousands of investors dollars without leaving anything valuable behind. You must have obsessive perseverance, but it must to the process and not to one particular idea. Yes, you have to survive - but to do it, you’ve got to be trying to die.

If you need help figuring out how to die, find me on Twitter and I’ll be happy to help you. HN Discussion


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