Caring About Things is Hard
Sometimes, people ask me why I haven’t started my own startup. It’s a fair question. I’m a programmer, and a woman, AND I’ve basically only worked at startups for the past 10 years; I’m effectively a liberal trifecta of startup trendiness.
Usually I say something like, “I’m not in the feeling it now, maybe later.” A possibly more accurate reason is, “I don’t want to ask a bunch of VCs for money.”
But as I sit down, to start a new project, I’m beginning to see that I have another, deeper, and far more unconscious blocker. Simply stated, it’s a lot harder to risk your own ideas failing than it is to watch someone else’s ideas failing.
At my last job, by the time we folded, I was the Head of Software at a company called Quartz. I was close with the two founders, and I really believed in and really wanted Quartz’s success. Toward the end, I had to let my entire department go because we didn’t have enough money, then I was fired shortly after myself.
The stakes were high, and it was hard.
Yet, because I wasn’t one of the original founders, I was insulated from emotions around it. I have certainly considered where my own failures contributed, but I didn’t feel like Quartz’s failure was my failure. I felt like, there were areas that if I’d performed a better we could have had a better shot, but also that there were certain decisions out of my control.
Now, in a period of brief respite before I need another job, I decided to start on my own project. The stakes are much lower; my main goal, is to produce content regularly, hopefully circling around the topic of covert authoritarianism. Success would be, if I am able to produce regular content for 1–2 years that helped people counteract manipulation and coercion in their own lives. Extreme success would be, if I am also able to generate enough money (both with income from my next job, and potentially outside of it) so that 1–2 years from now, I’m able afford a period where I focus on collating things around it more intently, perhaps generating a self-published book or website or something.
By comparison, our goal at Quartz was to create company worth hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars by specializing in construction analytics. We had many competitors, needed to navigate getting investment, and had to produce a large, cohesive project with many people who weren’t used to working at startups. Effectively; we had a much, much bigger challenge.
Yet, right now, when I wake up every morning I am so much more nervous than when I worked at Quartz. If I fail… no one reads my work. That’s it. I end up with a bunch of blog posts instead of a book. In fact, failure now is basically equivalent to me not writing, which is what I’ve been doing for the past 3 years anyway. But, somehow, it seems so much more terrifying and I’m starting to see that my not committing to my own work runs deeper than just “not having time” or “not having money” or whatever.
Simply stated, it is psychologically easier to live in a state of potential than one of action.
Or, restated, it feels good for me to sit around fantasizing about all of the things I’m going to one day do, and it’s scary to actually do them. Here are a selection some of my favorite fantasies:
- I’m going to create a web service that helps women (or anyone!) with stalkers or cyber abuse
- I’m going to start a non-denominational monastery where people can live for free while they recover from their mental health problems
- I’m going to join all those people campaigning to legalize psychedelics, and if we succeed, I’m going to help FINISH the emotional revolution that LSD started in the 60s-70s
And, I love thinking about these things; it feels great to daydream about them. And yet. And yet and yet and yet….
All of my work goes towards making other things come to life, things like online shops or video streaming services. And, there is nothing wrong with those things, but they’re not the things I’m dreaming about.
Funny thing about my work, is I spend all my time trying making other people’s dreams come true. So, ok, I figured let’s turn it around. What if I did for myself what I’ve been doing for startup founders all these years?
So — I thought about my fantasies, and found a theme. And, my theme is basically “I want to free myself, and I want to help other people free themselves.” That seemed slightly too hippie dippie (but, maybe not?) so I changed it to be more like, “I want to help people escape the ubiquitous yet subtle authoritarian impulses that surround them” but that’s not the phrasing in my head.
As I’m working, when I lose motivation or impulse, it’s the phrase “free yourself” that I keep coming back to — both, as a reminder to myself, and as an inspiration for what I want my message to other people to be. I want to be free. I want you to be free.
What is freedom? Well, I guess that’s really what the next 1–2 years are about figuring out, in a way.
Buttt, anyway! So, great — we have a theme! Startup Emma puts on her consultant hat again and asks Project Emma “What is the quickest way of getting something out there and testing out some of your ideas?”
Project Emma: “Well, I could write in my blog again”
Startup Emma: “Great! What else?”
PE: “Well — I could try around with other platforms? Like, some people don’t like reading so I could do YouTube videos maybe as well?”
SE: “Ok, good idea! Anything else?”
PE: “Maybe I could try to make some money on Etsy as well? That seems like a long shot, but even if I don’t make much, it might help me validate what types of things people like.”
SE: “I agree that if someone’s willing to put down a bit of money for something, it’s a stronger indicator than a like or a follow. So, great, try that too!”
PE: “There’s only one problem”
SE: “What’s that?”
PE: “All my content kind of sucks!”
At this point, Startup Emma nods her head sagely, and says “yes, when you start out on a project, all your content will INDEED suck. However, if you really succeed at your original idea — if you really give people information that helps them get out of manipulative or coercive situations — are they going to stop reading your blog because of your typos, or even poor writing quality? Are they going to stop watching your videos because you can’t afford a good camera? I don’t think so.”
This is (a version of) the advice I give to startups all the time; if you are making something valuable enough, people will forgive your flaws early on. Don’t get me wrong, they’ll complain about them, but in a strange way, complaints can actually be good. It reminds me of a line I read in the Startup Owner’s Manual about some of the feedback an (eventually successful) startup got from a user on their early product:
“It seems to crash my computer every time I use it,” said one user who kept coming back for more.
Think of how valuable a product they must have been making if someone was willing to tolerate their computer crashing all the time in order to use it. And, you know, ideally you avoid inconveniences that extreme but that’s not usually what sinks startups; usually startups fail because they don’t create something that valuable. If your initial idea isn’t valuable enough, then you have to keep experimenting and finding new ideas until you find one that is (and, btw, usually people’s first idea isn’t quite right so you should expect to try out many ideas.)
Yet, I’d venture to say, most startups don’t actually do this. I’ve watched several startups fail because they insisted on polishing turds instead of iterating and getting new ideas, and the whole time I’d be internally screaming “WHYYYYYYY?”
But, now I get why. Putting yourself out there when your content/product is rough, is scary, and vulnerable and it is so much more comfortable to live in the fantasy world of imagining what might work, rather than finding out what really does work. And, I’m not going to lie to you, I wake up every morning like “I can’t spell for shit, and my video looks like I shot it on a butt-phone” and… I freak out a little bit.
But I got some wins too!
As of this writing, I have 8 subscribers on my YouTube channel which may not seem like a lot to you, but it’s actually kind of a lot for me — and, I actually sold things to 2 people I didn’t know on Etsy, and one of them sent me a really nice note! (Real talk, I also freaked out slightly about the Etsy sales because I know at least one thing has a typo in it — but if you get something from me with a typo I’ll send you a link to the updated version when I fix it. Something about my brain is immune to seeing typos, and I’m sorry.)
However. If you’ve read this far, I have a suspicion you may not really be reading because you’re interested in me; maybe you’re reading because some part of you might have a project that you want to start? Maybe, my fear of putting myself out there is relatable because you’re trying to do something but you’re afraid of putting yourself out there?
If this is the case, let me share 2 videos with you! They’re about YouTube specifically (cuz, low key, I am especially terrified of starting a YouTube channel) but may still be useful for other projects as well:
I found this one especially inspirational for the following line: “Yes, there are thousands and thousands of YouTubers, but none of them are you. It’s kind of like making friends in real life; there are millions of people out there, probably a few hundred or thousand in your town at least, but even if you were to meet all of them you wouldn’t click with all of them. You would only click with a few, and it’s kind of the same thing with YouTubers. Yes, there are thousands of YouTubers we as viewers could be following, but we will only feel that connection with a few.”
And then, I found this second video to be really useful because he basically breaks down a YouTube version of SEO that I used to use at consumer based startups. He gives you a specific version of what you could do on YouTube, but a similar idea will apply if you’re starting out small in really any space; you want to go to areas that have a lot of searches, but not much competition. He did this research on YouTube, there are ways to do similar ones on Google if you research it (I think it often requires using AdWords — it wasn’t something we did much at Quartz so I’m out of practice now.)
So, if you’re finding yourself in a similar position — if there’s something you’d like to be doing, but you’re afraid — hopefully this could be inspirational. If not and you just liked reading this far… well, thanks for sticking around!