The classic startup-to-blockbuster-success story goes something like this: initial idea; months of working in the lab and writing groundbreaking ideas on whiteboards in the basement at 3am; CUE MOVIE MONTAGE; wild success and a trendy office with Elektra Belle Epoque espresso machines at every desk.
This narrative is good for motivating aspiring entrepreneurs, but glosses over an important part of the early stage startup process - supporting yourself while you develop your dream. I’m calling it the “montage phase.” This is the hustle you don’t hear about, but it’s a very challenging, stressful, and potentially lethal part of the startup process.
CB Insights recently did a survey of why 101 startups failed. Three of the attributions to failure stood out to me:
- Lose focus: 13%
- Lack passion: 9%
- Burn out: 8%
To me, this means about 30% of the primary reasons why startups fail are related to founders not being able to sort out the “montage phase”. Moonlighting and dropping out of school is romanticized in startup lore, but in practice, it is extremely difficult to effectively work any other job (or study) while trying to build a startup. As long as you’re doing both, both with inevitably suffer.
And unless you have a ridiculous amount of personal savings, you will have to either moonlight or work part time gigs to keep yourself alive in your startup’s early stages. All founders get to a point where they must decide to end this overlap, by either folding the startup, or quitting their day job and going full-time on the startup. Knowing when to go from part-time to full-time and how to survive before that jump is not easy.
Startup demi-god Steve Wozniak co-founded Apple while working as an engineer for Hewlett Packard. After about a year of moonlighting at Apple, he and Steve Jobs were selling about 1,000 computers per month and managed to raise $250,000 from a venture capitalist. Wozniak made the jump to full time at Apple when their first investor made it a requirement of investment.
Most founders of failed startups hadn’t quit their day jobs, and most successful founders had - it’s why investors and accelerators require their entrepreneurs to go full time. In the words of Y Combinator founder Paul Graham: “If startup failure were a disease, the CDC would be issuing bulletins warning people to avoid day jobs.”
But again, easier said than done. Developing your startup while you hustle to stay alive requires extraordinary grit and focus. Wozniak is literally a genius, who was also borderline obsessive when it came to building computers, and possibly also allergic to sleeping.
My business partner and I are now part of a startup accelerator program - a significant step for any startup - which gave us our clear jump-off point. For the past couple of years though, my partner was working a full time job and moonlighting on our business. I worked an almost comical number of part time jobs in order to stay alive and keep my schedule flexible enough to travel for business development (and then scramble like crazy when I got back).
I lived on couches and in guest bedrooms of my friends parents’ houses and worked almost every weekend. Some weeks, I barely worked on our startup at all, because I was so low on funds. I never had more than $2,000 in my bank account, and often had less than $200.
I don’t say this to solicit sympathy or respect, but simply to point out that during the “montage phase,” life is very difficult, uncertain, stressful, and never glamorous. The excitement of building something you are passionate about provides some of the necessary energy to keep it up, but there are so many challenges and setbacks and frankly depressing days that you need more than simply excitement to go from having an idea, to a functioning startup. (An honest look at how hard it can be).
There is a ton of advice out there on how to progress from the idea phase to blockbuster success status (here’s one good place to start). Most of it applies to what to do about your business, but you can’t forget about yourself. You have to stay alive and give yourself enough time to use all that good advice. Which is to say, don’t neglect the “montage phase,” when your day job will infringe on your startup, the rest of your life will be completely unbalanced, and everything about your future is uncertain. Know that it’s coming and make a plan to get through it. Figure out how you and your founders are going to support yourselves during your startup’s early days. Then identify which milestone will force/allow you to make the jump to full time and figure out how to get there.
It’s tempting to look at classic startup stories and think only about the exciting beginning and the glamorous ending. It is unreasonable however, to assume that while starting a company, your personal life will sort itself out. So make a plan for that “montage phase” in the middle. It isn’t glamorous, and you probably won’t talk about it much when you’re being interviewed by TechCrunch or Fast Company, but on the days when the excitement just isn’t there, you can fall back on your plan and take another step closer to having a $20,000 espresso machine at every desk.
Jack Fischl is a co-founder at Keteka.com - a website that connects travelers with authentic tours and activities in Latin America and allows them to book their experiences online.