in Startups

11 Epiphanies I’ve Had While Building My Startup

3835589500_8573d28f92Since starting Feast, I’ve found myself in the very fortunate position to learn a great deal in a very short amount of time.

I’ve learned a lot about myself.

I’ve learned a lot about building a company.

I’ve learned a lot about other people.

I’ve learned a lot about the world.

When exploring and moving quickly through new terrain we often don’t stop to look back and look at what, specifically, we’ve learned. This week’s Startup Edition topic allowed me to do just that.

Here are some of the big epiphanies I’ve had. Have you had any of these yourself? After reading through mine, comment and share your own.

1. You don’t have to raise money

This might come as a shock, especially to those living in the valley.

There’s this unspoken belief that in order to build a successful company you need to raise money and grow it to massive scale.

That’s just not true.

Many companies have been able to build something massive without raising money in their early days.

And the world needs more small wins. If everyone in the world is trying to build something massive, who’s going to take care of the smaller problems? The problems that are very real, for very real people, but may not have a massive market size.

I’m not saying it’s better or worse to build a massive venture-backed company. I’m saying that it shouldn’t be your default. Build what you believe in. If it happens to work out as something that needs investment then great, raise money. If it’s not, that’s ok.

Not quenching your ambition? Well then take solace in the knowledge that almost every major business you know of today started with something very small and focused.

2. You should ignore most advice

Other entrepreneurs love to give advice, but they usually suck at it.

It’s not because people want to give you bad advice. It’s just that no one has enough context to really give you good advice.

Even worse than taking advice from entrepreneurs is taking advice from most investors. Whenever I speak to investors, they tell me what I need to do to succeed, which usually means what I need to do for them to succeed. They’ll tell you what you need to do in order to be worthy of their investment which may or may not be in line with what you believe in.

We’ve listened to a lot of advice during our time building Feast. Especially during 500 Startups when we had a ton of speakers and mentors to tap all the time. Turned out most of that advice sent us in the wrong directions.

No one knows you, your team and your business as well as you do. Use advice as a source of inspiration or to gain new perspectives but never use it to decide your direction. That decision has to come from you.


3. Your worst case scenario is better than you think

The fear that entrepreneurs feel is closely tied to the amount of risk they feel they’re taking.

The amount of risk they’re actually taking is often less drastic than they think.

We never really address what our worst case scenario is. It remains this dark, ominous concept looming in the back of our mind. Your company is going to fail, you’re going to be broke, living on the street, ashamed, ridiculed, and depressed.

Chill brain, that’s some dark shit.

But when you actually think about your options, you realize that you have a much better worst case scenario.

If your company fails, you can get a job, live with a friend or family, work on a farm, travel on an extreme budget… there are so many other options, all of which are far from the depressing end that your brain defaults to if you don’t address the idea of your worst case scenario.

4. Do what you believe in

Do you believe in what you’re doing?

It’s the single most important question for any entrepreneur.

If the answer is no, none of the other questions about market size, growth strategy, branding or anything matters.

If the answer is yes, then nothing should stop you from making it into a reality. As long as you believe, you stand a chance of defying the odds and succeeding.

5. You have no idea who’s actually succeeding

That hip new startup that’s all over tech news.

That company whose facebook posts has a kajillion likes.

That competitor who’s gaining thousands of signups every day according to their recent press release.

We get so caught up in the success and failure of other companies.

The truth is it doesn’t matter and even if it did, you have NO idea who’s actually doing well and who isn’t.

There are way too many variables that go into a startup to have any idea who’s successful.

And success itself is relative. People define success in any number of ways that could be different from yours.

So don’t get caught up in what other startups are doing. Focus on what’s in front of you. Regardless of how anyone else is doing, the only thing that matters is executing on your vision.

We’ve made the mistake of looking too much to other companies and competitors to guide decisions that we’re making. Just because someone else is doing it doesn’t mean it’s right. It’s more likely that they’re lost and guessing just as much as you are.


6. Competitors can become friends and vice versa

Startups change frequently.

Someone you consider a direct competitor can one day be a great partner.

A great partner can one day be a competitor.

Best thing you can do is treat everyone you meet with respect and be helpful with competitors and partners alike.

You can be competitive, but don’t be a dick.

7. Create space for honest reflection

It’s easy to go heads down for long periods of time and never come up for air, talk to your team, see the bigger picture and make logical decisions.

Nadia and I often work remotely, but we’ve made it a routine to meet every week and just talk. No laptops, no phones, no notebooks…just talk.

We share our feelings. We share our fears. We give each other brutally honest feedback about each other, anything awesome and anything that’s bothering us. We talk about the direction the company is moving and whether or not it feels right.

The hardest and most important decisions we’ve made for Feast have come from these talks. They’ve led to some of the most successful strides and always leave us with greater clarity.

I highly recommend trying this. If you can do it in person, then leave the office, go for a walk, sit in a park. Create physical, mental and emotional space where you can have an open, honest conversation.

8. Ask customers to pay as soon as possible

If you plan on selling a product then it’s never too soon to ask customers to pay.

It’s way to easy to just keep building cool stuff and build up an audience while delaying the uncomfortable task of asking for money.

But you have to do it. It’s the only way you really know if you have a real business.

If you ask for money, either people will say yes (sweet you have a business!) or they’ll say no. If they say no, you can ask why and learn what you really need to build in order to solve a problem worth paying for.

9. Great cultures aren’t planned, they grow organically

I’ve tried to think strategically about what a healthy culture will look like for Feast.

I realized that great cultures form on their own, they aren’t planned.

It starts with the founders and their values.

Then it translates to the team. You can find it in everything from the company’s voice to the subtle interactions and habits that form amongst the team.

I think that’s why it’s hard to develop a real culture when you hire too many people right away. I’ve seen that happen and as a result the company tries to manufacture a culture instead of growing one naturally.

10. You have to take care of yourself in order to succeed

The startup world is so focused on GO GO GO, GET SHIT DONE, SHIP IT! You work hard, you work long, you work late…you might fail but it certainly won’t be for lack of hustle.

That’s all good and commendable, but I’ve found it to be completely unsustainable and inefficient.

True there are some really successful people who are workaholics. But there are also a lot of really successful people who build daily routines that ensure that they take time for themselves and their families. They make sure they’re emotional, mentally and physically healthy. By doing so, they set themselves up to have a huge impact in their work.

If you want to help the world, you have to help yourself first.

11. The only way to truly learn something is to experience it yourself

Some of you might be nodding your head as you read this post and thinking how it’s cool to learn all this stuff.

The problem with these kinds of posts is you won’t truly understand what I’m sharing until you experience it yourself.

I can’t tell you how many times Nadia and I have talked and just laughed about how everyone told us the same thing but we made the mistake anyway.

They can tell you that startups are hard, fundraising sucks, validate first, hire slow, fire fast, follow your gut, ignore advice, etc… but we’ve failed to truly grasp any of those concepts until we went through them ourselves.

So if you take one thing away from this post it’s that you should just try.

Put yourself in uncomfortable positions.

Take risks.

If you don’t know shit about fundraising but you think you need to do it, then just start. You’ll learn quickly.

Want to start a company but can’t wrap your head around everything involved? Just take that first step and you’ll learn along the way.

Jealous of that person who seems to know everything about woodwork? The only difference between them and you is that they did it and you haven’t yet.

People don’t do things because they understand them. They understand them because they did them.

What epiphanies have you had while building your startup?

Photo Credit: CodyHoffman via Compfight cc

  • RishabhGupta

    “I’m telling you the truth because I care. I want you to succeed, or at least fail faster.” at-least fail faster….love it 🙂

  • twoodo_pr

    “Just do it and you’ll learn quickly” – no truer words spoken!!!

  • David M Krell

    Loved this article. Thanks for your sincerity and openness. Sometimes you can learn from others… That’s what good writing does.

    • DavidSpinks

      @David M Krell  Really appreciate that. Glad you found it informative (=

  • darnocks

    Great post here. Once again. Would you say that point 2 can easily be thwarted by listening to your customers instead? Do you practice lean?

    • DavidSpinks

      darnocks maybe. You can definitely learn a lot from customers. It’s important that you’re listening to the right customers and you understand what they’re truly saying. Often, customers don’t really know what they want either so you need to dig deeper.

  • Vivienne

    Thank your for this post! It´s so true. I nodded a lot – cause I experienced the same.

  • KeeranJ

    Was having my weekly ‘oh sh*t my startup is gonna fail, world is ending’ kind of day, stumbled across this and was just the right read. Great article!

    • DavidSpinks

      KeeranJ awesome. Really glad this found you at the right time. Keep up the good fight!

  • manekidenise

    Hey David, I’m glad I got curious after reading your article on the community manager, the things you write on your blog are really refreshingly down to earth and I’m glad I’m not the only one with those thoughts (that’s a bold thing to think anyway!). 
    I’m currently jobless after I left my previous job where I was undervalued and felt misunderstood. I’ve had the worst experiences with managers who didn’t have the time to fully understand me and couldn’t support me enough and then I left London and the UK because I missed my family back home in Germany and I couldn’t deal with all the pressure of the London job market any more. 
    Where am I going with this? Well, I’ve been a popular and successful community manager and now I’m sat in Germany where most companies only offer internships for people like me. But I believe in what I’m doing, I think communities are the future and I worship Brian Solis (haha). Is Germany ready for me? Are there employers who will recognise my value and support me? Should I just go ahead and do my own thing? I’m full of questions at the moment and since you’ve managed to finally take that step I’d like to know what situation you’d been in before you dared to do it. Did you have someone on your side to take that step with you? How did you find that person? Sorry for the wall of text but I’m very intrigued (and I’ll send you a challenge in a bit ;))
    Thanks and I look forward to your reply 🙂

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  • abrewbrew

    Sorry I’m a little late to comment but I think something extremely important that I’ve realized over the past few years in the startup world is that you cant be afraid to walk away. I’m sure you’re thinking, “what an epiphany” right?!? I didn’t know that this was an option until 2 years ago. I thought that I was going to be at the same company for the rest of my life. My parents both worked for the same company for over 35 years. My aunts, uncles, grandparents also worked for the same company and they have all worked 30-45 years for this company. Mind blowing! After 6 years with that same automotive company, I walked away to figure out what makes me happy and start a new life on the West coast. Walking away was so freaking scary but it was the best decision I’ve made yet in my life.

    Walking away can mean various things… Walking away from a company, walking away from a direction you thought the company should go, walking away from a meeting before you lose it on someone. Regardless, it’s ok to walk away. 

    Walking away from a company – if you don’t believe in what you’re doing then you won’t be happy. I spend at least 15 hours/day working (physically working, talking about work, dreaming about work, thinking about work) and if I didn’t believe in what I’m helping build then that leaves me 9 hours/day to find happiness and I would say I spend at least 7 of those 9 hours sleeping. If you believe in you and your abilities to be successful then don’t be afraid to walk away from a company and start over. It’s scary but it’s refreshing and hopefully you’ll find something you’re truly passionate about and then you’ll find a new and better you.

    Walking away from a direction you thought the company should go – sometimes I get so caught up in my work and how my work impacts the company that I can’t comprehend the ideas of my colleagues bc they don’t align with what I’m working on. It’s hard to accept that I’ve spent 3 months building something that won’t be seen by anyone. How frustrating. Doesn’t my company value my time? You have to step back and realize that ideas/platforms/companies are abandoned every day and be grateful that it was only 3 months wasted and not years. And… was it truly wasted? Did I have a great time doing it? Did I meet cool people? Did I challenge myself and grow from the experience?  The answer is most likely hell yes to all those questions. 

    Walking away before you go off on someone – I have seen this time and time again because startups have a relaxed, open work environment and you’re often friends and drinking buddies with your C-level execs. However, this does not mean that you can openly defy them or disrespect them in front of colleagues and co-workers. It’s hard though because I’m passionate about what I’m building and I want to be heard. There’s a time and a place for these conversations and it isn’t in the open office environment or in a team meeting. Take a walk, chill out, sleep on it, workout and then come back and speak your mind in an offline conversation. I have seen great people lose their drive because they popped off at a staff meeting or said the wrong thing to someone at the wrong time and suddenly they were isolated, not happy at work and produced crappy products. Most people do not like confrontation and will avoid it all costs. You don’t want to be the one creating confrontation and being rude to the leaders of your company. LIke Spinks said you have to respect one another and that means keeping one’s ego in check and knowing when to walk away and chill the f out. 

    Don’t be afraid to take risks and do what is best for you. As a new year approaches, I am excited for the challenges and amazing successes which are ahead for me, my loved ones and my colleagues. 2013 produced many successful IPOs and an up turn in the national job market and I would expect 2014 to be even better.

    Cheers to 2014!

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  • schultzybeckett

    And you were let go because
    there was a cash-flow issue and your skills aren’t imperative for the next
    cycle. Then you’re screwed because you can’t just walk in to a business and get
    another executive level job, especially if the startup was your first rodeo.
    Because now you know how exciting and rewarding it can be, and you can’t NOT go
    out on your own, despite noise like this being published. 
    schultzy @