Zen and the Art of Startup Maintenance


[This is a parody inspired by Robert Pirsig’s wonderful classic, from the perspective of a man that’s seen a lot of startups come and go, some succeeding and some failing. For the real thing, please go to Amazon and purchase Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.]

I can see on my iPhone, without taking my hands off of the keyboard, that it is only 8:30 in the morning. There are already 74 emails in my inbox. If there are already 74 emails in my inbox at 8:30 in the morning, I’m wondering what it’s going to be like in the afternoon…

I’m wondering why it took us so long to figure it out. It was there but we couldn’t see it. Or rather we were trained not to see it. Hoodwinked into thinking that the real action was in the meetings with venture capitalists, and not in the boring hinterlands of our crappy warehouse space office with two other founders. It was a puzzling thing. The truth knocks on your door and you say, “Go away, I’m looking for the truth.”

But once we caught on, of course, nothing could keep us from working on our businesses. Nothing could keep us off these roads: weekends, evenings, vacations. And along the way, on the road, we figured out there are things you learn as you go. Let me tell you a few things we have learned on the road.

We have learned, for example, that the startups that are the most likely to get funding are the ones that are least likely to need it. That what makes a startup worthy of funding are many of the things that make any business succeed. Not a great idea, but real-life customers and users and growth and energy. An ecosystem that’s excited about what it is that you’re doing. That’s something people get excited about. An ecosystem. A culture. Perhaps even a trace of personality and energy in a tool that’s useful. It’s funny, investors tend to get excited about the exact same things other kinds of people tend to get excited about. Whatever it is that you do, if you can make a lot of people excited about it, some of those people are going to be investors. That’s how you get funding.

We started watching our friends on the road, and we were surprised by what we saw. We thought that the friends who were all about the money would make the most money. But it kinda didn’t work out that way. We figured out that the friends who cared first and foremost about what their startup did were making money, but the friends who cared most about making money weren’t making any. Maybe it’s because you spend so much time out on the road, trying to raise capital, before your business starts to do anything exciting, that the ones who don’t care enough to learn the craft never stay on the road long enough to succeed. The ones who want to be on the road, regardless of whatever else is going on the road, they’re just out there. Doing their thing. And if you do your thing for long enough, sometimes, well, something great starts to happen.

Along the same lines, the ones who see startups as a short cut to business success never seem to go anywhere. Because if you really love the road, what’s the point in taking a short cut? The point isn’t to shortcut the roads. The point is to see and experience and live the roads. To get out there in the open air, in the cold and in the hot and in the storms, and just have life happen to you. To the real startup buffs, you want a chopper that moves well and efficiently, but you have no interest in a short cut. You came out on the roads for a reason, right?

Most importantly, we learned that nobody cares about your ideas. People care about your actions. What is it you do every day—that’s what people want to know. Want to see. What it is that you get done. How many customers you have. Whether you have created something that people actually want to use. Whether you can create something that makes peoples’ lives better. And perhaps something so great that people are even willing to pay you for it.

Whether your startup makes $10 or $10 billion dollars, the real adventurers know that in the end, it’s all about the time you spend on the road, not about the destination. Because even when you get to the end of a trip, it’s still just you that’s there. The real startup buffs don’t spend ten years on the road and then go on a permanent vacation to some beach where they drink mojitos. The real startup roadsters just want to be on the road. Some days things go well and sometimes there’s something that comes up that can’t be fixed. But good days or bad days, the real ones are going to be out on the road again as soon as they can. Because that’s what you do. That’s where all the action is. That’s where all the excitement is.

Trials never end, of course. But there is a feeling now that was not there before. It is not just on the surface of things, but penetrates all the way through. We’re going in the right direction now. You can sort of tell these things.

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