Perhaps it is a function of how much attention the startup economy gets these days (hopefully we are doing our part), but there is a ton of advice and stories and lessons learned out there from entrepreneurs—and the more successful they get the more they seem to think that their life lessons apply universally. Now, I’m normally not one to criticize entrepreneurs helping each other out, mentoring, etc. In fact I have explicitly said that we need more of that, especially as a way to promote inclusiveness for founders of all backgrounds. However, there’s some common narratives that get tossed around that are not only unhelpful, but may actually have the opposite effect and damage people’s efforts to get a company off the ground. One I find especially pernicious is the idea of wanting it bad enough.
Wanting it bad enough can be expressed in several ways, but it usually involves persisting in the face of: 1. extremely long odds of success (even beyond the typical long odds for any startup), 2. really bad news (the product doesn’t work, the big client dropped us, 3. having multiple failures but continuing to try things, 4. going years without making any money or paying yourself. Typically, this lesson is imparted with some Hollywood panache, a story of how the founder was out of money, but wanted it so bad he or she kept on just one more week…blah blah blah…now they are the keynote.
So let’s leave aside the fact that not everyone can afford to take this advice, and that out of money for some people means something very different than it does for others—we’ll come back to that. The first thing you need to understand is that you are only hearing one highly unlikely possible outcome of this situation. Because we know statistically that most startups fail, that it is really hard to get a company to profitability and scale up. Moreover, you do not have to spend time around entrepreneurs to discover that the vast majority of them are very driven, willing to do whatever it takes, determined to succeed kind of people. So that means that for every story of persistence paying off, there are many more where the same persistence did not, where the founders tried and worked themselves silly and went without pay and put everything on the line and it came to nothing. We just don’t ask them to be keynote speakers and to write books about it. More than likely, the difference was just a little good luck at the right time—a client or investor came along at just the right time and it made all the difference. But no one wants to hear the story that even if you do everything right, you still need a little luck, and so ultimately success or failure could end up being beyond your control no matter how bad you want it.
Without that context about how many similarly motivated people struggle and fail, persistence stories stop being inspirational insight and start being a magic recipe: If you just do these steps, if you are just pure enough in your willingness to risk and sacrifice, then success will find you. The problem is the converse: If you don’t succeed, then you didn’t try hard enough.
This is not only untrue, but damaging to the people so unjustly labelled. It has an end effect of creating an environment where only one type of entrepreneur is taken seriously, namely one with enough money to live indefinitely with no salary and survive a complete failure of the enterprise.
The truth is that not everyone has the same tolerance and endurance for trying to get and keep a company off the ground—and that is not a function of their willpower, but of their life experiences and commitments. If you have a child in daycare and a house payment, your perspective is miles apart from the college senior grinding it out from the dorm room. Both of them face challenges, and both of them may struggle to carry on because of external forces, irrespective of drive and effort. When we ignore this, and blame everything on the founder and some perceived lack of strength, then we are willfully ignoring the disparities in opportunity that different would-be entrepreneurs face. We then fail, collectively, to recognize the need for support mechanisms to ensure everyone has a fair chance at realizing their vision. Quite frankly, I know as a community we can do better than that.
So I challenge you to reach beyond those easy assumptions, and to listen to your fellow entrepreneurs with a spirit of compassion. There is at least as much to be learned from stories of what went wrong than of miraculous success, if we are willing to hear those lessons with understanding, instead of judgment. Moreover, those genuine connections you are forming may yield your next partner, next mentor, next opportunity. Don’t settle for the easy answers, the platitudes. Want it bad enough to go further.