Success is easy to describe isn’t it? It’s a simple word with a straightforward meaning. Only it’s not. Not to me, not anymore. If you are at the beginning of, currently immersed in, or at the end of, the tricky business of building a startup, then I suggest the word ‘success’ should not be so simple and straightforward for you either.
Here’s the thing; a few years ago, way back at the beginning of my time in startup land, I could quite confidently (and probably incorrectly) have rattled off what success would be – what it would look, sound, and smell like. Then the goal posts shifted, the path twisted and things changed. This happened again and again. The road markers to ‘Success-ville’ were all pointing unexpected directions – kind of like navigating using the launch version of Apple Maps.
This was a very uncomfortable experience (also like using Apple Maps). It seemed as though, since I had not arrived at the original destination in a timely manner, the opposite of success must have happened. Right?
The opposite of success, as everyone well knows, is failure. In startup land, failure can be a badge of honour – the spoils of a hard battle fought. It teaches lessons, toughens you up for the next fight and generally puts hairs on your chest (proverbially…last time I checked anyway). ‘Fail fast’ is part of the startup catechism along with ‘scale’ and ‘pivot’ and ‘attend events where there is free food’, however, I wasn’t there yet.
I kept pushing ahead through the twists and turns long after I probably should have hit the dump button; partly because I was convinced our business model was missing something critical (we ended up overhauling our revenue model and completely rethinking our go-to-market strategy), partly because I am stubborn to a fault, and partly because somewhere along the way I realised that the concept of success is utterly and completely malleable and subjective.
Before I came to this realization though, feeling like I was on the slippery slope to fail-town was highly unpleasant. At this point all the people around you in startup land seem like they are having a lovely time enjoying their own success (insert vision of smug, laughing people clinking champagne glasses and riding ponies).
I would listen with mild–to-serious envy to tales of huge user uptake, outrageous download numbers, media write ups and (hushed, reverential tone) actual revenue. Of course, amongst this fug of success there were those who very wisely took the fail fast card and moved on to the next project. I couldn’t do it. Somewhere along the way, my original picture of success had faded and suddenly I was free to be less rigid in my personal perception of success versus failure.
I was not failing fast, nor was I success-ing fast. I was (and still am) making my way inexorably down the startup path. Just because I cannot yet hold up a healthy revenue sheet in glee or tweet at Apple thanking them for featuring our app does not mean that I am not notching up successes.
Success can look like a compliment – or constructive feedback – from a potential customer. It could be scheduling a meeting with a mentor or finally making that phone call you had been putting off. It could look like a new database or some sweet new code if that’s your thing. It could even just be not giving up and going to work at that coffee shop down the road.
I am in no way suggesting that all business goals be wantonly thrown aside for an aimless meander through startup land. That’s a little too confronting for an achievement-driven Virgo like me. What I am saying is that whilst you are on the dark and often torturous path to actually achieving those goals, it is much easier, and kinder, to keep your perception of success fluid.
That means when you hit that nasty dank place sometimes called tech-failure sometimes called co-founder dispute or a dozen other unpleasant names, then you can salvage a modicum of comfort from small successes. Even on the worst day, you can remind yourself that you’re still success-ing overall and move on to the next step and one day, when you least expect it, you may look up and realize you have arrived exactly where you set out to go via the really long way around (thanks again Apple Maps).
Top image credit: StockMonkeys/Flickr.