So you want to start a startup?

Startups are in vogue, at least in my town (Lahore).

At a recent social gathering I met a young college graduate. After the brief introduction, he asked for some advice about how to start his own company in light of my entrepreneurial experience. Although I commended him for being ambitious, the young guy’s belief that startups are easy surprised me. He was convinced that launching a startup couldn’t be harder than a normal job.

One thing I can say with a lot of certainty, after having run a company for approximately ten years, is that launching a startup is not easy. It was a lot tougher than anything else I had ever done professionally. For one, if you are running a company not only do you have to worry about putting food on your plate, but those of several others as well. So all I can tell you is that a startup consumes your life to an unimaginable extent.

Let me paint a scenario to show the wide range of work-related problems an entrepreneur may face at any given time. At one point I was engaged in finding a solution to a non-trivial engineering problem which had become a bottleneck for our most valued customer; at the same time, at the back of my mind, I had to think about depleting reserves in the bank, generating more leads, building a new website, moving to a new office, and assessing the underperformance of a senior employee.

You have to face and resolve a lot of uncertainty when you are running a small company. Not only do you have to resolve uncertainty about things you are good at, but you must also resolve things that fall outside your circle of competence. You have to learn a lot in order to take care of issues related to engineering, marketing, and human resources, because as the founder of a startup you cannot initially afford to have dedicated departments that can take care of these issues on their own. I have personally experienced that if you have an engineering background you will have your work cut out for you when it comes to marketing and managing human resources.

By all this, I do not mean that to be a founder you have to be half superman and half ironman. Rather, my point is just that you have to deal with many different headaches in starting up a company, and you are expected to make good-quality decisions fast.

So I tried to clear up his misconception that startups are easy to begin. One has to devote a lot of thinking, focus and energies in order to form a sustainable company. To emphasize this, I shared with the young fellow an interesting story I heard eons ago.

A man once travelled a great distance to seek advice from Socrates. The man met him and asked how he could become most knowledgeable.

Socrates took him on a walk along the beach. Once they both drew closer to the water, Socrates quickly grabbed him by his neck and plunged his head under the water. After a brief while the man felt breathless and started using all of his force to get out of the uncomfortable situation. Realising that the man badly needed to breathe, Socrates released his grip. The man quickly lifted his head up to gasp as much air as he could.

Just when he had taken a couple of breaths, Socrates forcefully pushed his head under the water again. The man was completely appalled at the philosopher's behaviour, as he never thought his innocuous question would receive such a painful response. In his mind, he was scolding himself for travelling all that distance, while his struggles continued.

Again, when the man had almost choked, Socrates released his grip. The man quickly lifted his head and inhaled the badly needed air. His suffering was not over yet. After a couple of breaths Socrates forced his head under the water yet again. Although he was applying all his force to rid himself of the master’s grip, his body started suffocating due to shortness of breath. The man was the epitome of misery. Eventually, Socrates released him a final time and helped him revive.

Once the man had regained complete consciousness, Socrates responded to his original question by saying: “You will get what you want if you need it as badly as you needed air to breathe when I held your head underwater.” The man had learned his lesson and walked into the sunset.

For me, this story is powerful. When the man’s head was underwater his only desire was to get air. At that moment, nothing else was more critical. His brain was occupied predominantly with only one thought, i.e., how do I get some air? Since it is our thoughts that drive our actions, the story is a forceful reminder of how important the complete engagement of the mind is in working toward a single purpose.

Engaging one’s mind in pursuing a myriad of unrelated thoughts can lead one astray. The idea that varied thoughts can result in success is a contradictio in adjecto. An abundance of wide-ranging thoughts can result in unrelated actions and the eventual outcome could be distorted like a music composition performed by an uncoordinated choir. Even in my startup, we chased too many things at one point and ended up getting none of them.

Since varied thoughts distract, entrepreneurs should try to do their startups full-time and focus on doing a few things really well. The young guy I met insisted that he would want to start his company while in graduate school, whereas I was of the view that this would lead him nowhere. Although a few people have bootstrapped their startups part-time, for most it is folly to think that significant progress can be made by doing a startup part-time. If you or your partner plan on working part-time, then the odds of success are against you. Most successful examples involve those who did it full-time.

Therefore, if you want to create a startup, more power to you, but please remember the road is full of obstacles that one can only overcome through complete mental engagement, focus and sheer hard work. Without these things you may still end up with a company but it will be akin to a meteor, shining for a brief moment and invisible to most.

(Photo by Emilio Garcia on Unsplash)