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Underbelly: What haughty startup bloggers don’t tell you

From A Smart Bear: Startups and Marketing for Geeks

You have to wonder at these folks who blog so confidently about how to run little companies.

I mean, on the one hand Joel teaches us everything we need to know about customer service while being funny and telling stories. But has Joel ever screwed up? If so, he hasn’t said.

Or 37signals, a company run by geeks with a unique vision about why products (not just software) should be simple and beautiful. They even wrote a whole book about it. Inspiration in every paragraph. Love it! But read their blog and all you get is ultimatums — unwavering confidence that their way is gospel handed down from Mt. Sinai.

Shoot, I’m also guilty of blasting my patient readers to always be honest, never use the phase “and more,” and how you should fearlessly pursue ideas, or maybe completely change them. Huh?

“Always” “never” “do” “don’t.” Such confidence! It’s a lot to look up to, a lot to emulate.

Aren’t you are just like these perfect personas? You’ve got an internally-consistent philosophy guiding every decision, right?

You’ve always got the correct answer and never toss and turn at night.  RIGHT?

You don’t worry about competitors or worry about having shitty ideas or whether money will come through the door next month…. uh… right?

I mean, can you imagine Joel fretting, wringing his hands, wondering how he’s going to make payroll, second-guessing his choices, wondering if maybe they should have added some feature, or frightened that a price-change could completely destroy the revenue stream?

Well that’s it. I’m coming out of the closet. It’s not fair, and it’s not accurate.

Running a little company is frickin’ frightening. See if any of this sounds familiar:

  1. I don’t have the confidence or the stamina that I see in all those successful people that I admire. I can’t do this.
  2. There’s too much to do; it’s impossible. How does everyone else find the time?
  3. I don’t know anything about marketing/sales/accounting/software/websites/Twitter/blogging. These other people seem to know everything. I don’t know enough.
  4. How will anyone ever find out about me? The Internet is too big.
  5. I won’t be able to get revenue. The economy sucks.
  6. Why would anyone give me money when there are big established companies out there?
  7. My orders are supposed to have picked up by now, but they’re haven’t.
  8. Someone just said something bad about me on [insert social networking micro-universe]. Great, that’s easier to find than my own website.
  9. My website looks like ass. Everyone’s going to know I’m small.

This is just the beginning of the thoughts and emotions I had when starting Smart Bear in 2002. I could list another 100. You’re not alone. This is normal.

“So what?” you cry! “It’s normal. Fantastic. That doesn’t fix anything.”

Okay. Here’s mindset for dealing with all the examples above (in the same order):

  1. Their confidence is a façade. Strong statements are useful literary devices; hedging and vacillation are tedious. But these are not core statements they’ve known about from the beginning of time. Not a one of them has run their companies according to all those rules from day one. They figured it out in the course of running their companies, and then they talked about it. Big difference! You can figure it out too.
  2. There’s always an infinite amount of work. Remind yourself that no matter how hard you work, there’s way too much to do. Take a break and take care of yourself. Do a few concrete things every day. Realize that procrastination is healthy and useful. Success doesn’t come because you did everything, it’s because you did the important things.
  3. Even the “experts” in things like Twitter are still figuring it out. Remember the rise of the Internet in the late 1990’s? Go read about what the “experts” said and see if anyone guessed something Twitter would dominate the world. Don’t attack all these things at once; just pick one thing at a time to get good at. For things like law and accounting, yes it’s worth the cost.
  4. If your niche is small enough, and if your message is targeted enough, you win. Think small, not big. Win in a teeny corner, then expand.
  5. A recession is the best time to start a company. Use it.
  6. Small companies have advantages and the big-company advantages are not as big as you think, and they shoot themselves in the foot every day. Just phrase things right when talking to customers.
  7. Business has no correct timetable. That’s like saying your kid should be potty-trained by now when every kid is different. You’re measuring against a yardstick that doesn’t exist.
  8. Good words spread faster than bad ones, because it’s more fun to tell good stories than bad ones. Thrill some customers, then ask them to post about it.
  9. It turns out your website’s ugliness doesn’t matter much. Sure, when you get a little dough you can pretty it up, but Smart Bear’s looked like ass for a long time and it didn’t hurt us. Or look at Craig’s List. It’s a disaster. Doesn’t matter.

Remember this: Doubt is good. It means you’re being introspective, that you’re not resting on prior knowledge (that might be invalid now), and that you’re honestly weighing the situation instead of employing blind optimism. Doubt is healthy! Hold onto that.

Will any of this make you feel better? Probably not, because feelings are emotional, not logical. If I read this list back then, I doubt it would have “fixed” my worries. But maybe it helps to know that this is just how it goes.

So listen to the expert bloggers; they have great advice. Just filter their attitudes through your own lens, and remember that they went through this pain too.

Hey you! You must have words of wisdom for the downtrodden little entrepreneur. Leave a comment and boost someone’s spirits today!

About nathan kaiser


  1. Great post! I’d have to say the best piece of advice for a start up blogger is to remember – no one made it to the top overnight!!!

    This is priceless: “Doubt is good”… it’s not comfortable but isn’t that the point of the whole post – that this isn’t necessarily about what’s “easy” or “comfortable”.

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