Dear Startup World: Chill the Fuck Out

Coming here from The Drama? This post is a reply to the drama, not the beginning of it. Justin’s post came first, after his podcast panel with me and Patrick McKenzie. Then the nasty comment quoted below, in re: Justin’s post. Then this blog post. Yup, how boring and lame is that? DRAMA LLAMA DING DONG. Wooo!

Make things. Help people. Be happy.

This is the heart of every message I put out there. The critical factor is that you ought to do what makes you happy, not what makes other people happy — because so often, ne’er the twain shall meet.

This is incredibly simple, uncontroversial advice.

There’s just one problem: it can be really fucking hard to even know what makes you happy when everywhere around you, you see only one, unified message.

One option.

In the tech world, that message is “startups.” And the concept of “startups” almost without fail comes part & parcel with some kind of funding. Pitching, seeking, signing contracts, giving out shares, building a board, having to please them as well as your customers, giving away part of your baby and part of your control — if not much of it.

But all that? It’s not the option. It’s only one of many options for making your own stuff & helping people.

One colossally, epically over-represented, and often incredibly miserable option.

So if you’ve come here via the latest Hacker News controversy — via the ranty goodness of Justin Vincent — know this:

There is another option. Hell, there are MANY other options.

That’s what I’m here to write about. Not VC. Not funding. Not “social startups.” Not lean startups.

I’m here to talk about making products and bootstrapping. Subscription software, subscription content, classes, screencasts, ebooks, white papers, reports… that’s what I’m interested in. That’s what I do. That’s what I love. That’s what makes me happy.

And This Is Why I’m Constantly Speaking Out

This is not a crazy, edgy message, people. It’s not outrageous to want to make things, help people, and be happy. It’s not ludicrous to want to get there under your own steam. It’s not revolutionary to want to create your own products, be beholden to no one, to be in full control of your products and your destiny.

These are not dangerous ideas.

So why does the “startup world” often treat them like they are?

But here’s what a prominent, self-dubbed technologist had to say in response to Justin’s article, which was based off ideas I named and promote, and which prominently linked to me:

I’m disappointed that this has gotten so many upvotes and positive comments.

There’s a middle ground between web application “lifestyle businesses” (like duping credulous customers into overpaying for a time-tracking tool styled with this month’s CSS trends) and trying to start the next Facebook.

There’s nothing wrong with being a small software company. People have been doing it for decades now. It’s boring, but there’s nothing wrong with it. Don’t expect anyone to celebrate you for doing it, though.

In case you’re new around here, my first SaaS is a beautiful time-tracking tool. And I poke the hornet’s nest, so this is what I get?

Here is somebody trying to tell me that I ought to do what makes him happy, not what makes me happy. And in the mean time, slagging the shit out of my work.

(Not to mention insinuating that my customers are stupid and can’t tell software that makes them happy from pretty colors.)

Pretty unbelievable, isn’t it?

If people are attacking such a fundamentally not-crazy, not-radical, not-harmful idea… you have to wonder what the hell else is going on.

Funding Makes Lots of People Miserable

In my line of work, I’ve met a lot of startup people. I’ve met quite a few who’ve had their startups yanked out from under them… who sold, only to watch their babies murdered… who built something they loved, only to end up employees once more at the acquiring company.

I’ve met people who’ve had their VCs and boards run their companies into the ground, replace them, force sales. I’ve met people who were had to “manage” their VCs so they did as little damage as possible, but who were miserable that they had to do so.

The more I promote the idea that you don’t need to try to boil the ocean or take funding to be happy, the more people write me privately to tell me that they support my message. That they wish they hadn’t taken VC and that next time, they sure as hell wouldn’t.

I won’t name names, because I didn’t ask permission first, but some of them are people whose names you know.

My goal in life is to make things, help people, and be happy. So I try to help other people be happy. For me, that means airing out the dirty laundry about the “startup” world… and promoting other ways of living & working.

If these simple, deeply mundane ideas make you feel challenged and insecure about what you do or what you want, make you feel like striking out, go back to Hacker News. Go read the 98% of tech media that supports your viewpoint.

In other words: Chill the fuck out, Dominant Paradigm. This is not for you.

And for the love of god, stop insulting people by labeling them “lifestyle businesses.” Your bitchy slip is showing.

Entreporn. Aside: yup, I called most of what was on Hacker News “entreporn” in this panel discussion with hosts Justin Vincent & Jason Roberts, and “bingo card guy” Patrick McKenzie.

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Discussion

  1. Andrew Liu

    Thank you so much for sharing your viewpoint! Lately I felt down about failing to start a startup, and your post cheered me up and actually gives me energy. Maybe other people can read Hacker News and not feel anxious, but I can’t, so Hacker News is now un-bookmarked.

    Reply
  2. Carlos

    You have to take them with a huge grain of salt. Realize that those opinions are in HN, which is about funding, ultra-fast growth and ultimately flipping. It’s PG’s site, and he invests in startups. If I recall correctly there’s a passage in his book (Hackers and Painters) where he advocates compressing 40 years of steady work into a mad rush, like don’t work 40hr weeks until you retire, work 100hr weeks for a much shorter time, so you get the rest of your life to enjoy all that money. Some like the fast lane, others don’t.

    Reply
    • Amy

      I know where HN came from, Carlos :) But lots of people don’t. Believe it or not, lots of people seem to be utterly unaware of the very distinct slant in the HN crowd/audience/content. That’s my whole point!

      Reply
  3. Aditya Sharma

    I agree that there’s a middle ground in developing a “lifestyle” web app and starting the next facebook but I don’t think letsfreckle falls into the duping category, there are examples out there that would fall into that category. Working in the agency business, I have been forever wanting to try freckle, just haven’t done it yet.

    As for being a small company, its exciting. You can be part of a software behemoth and still be stuck doing boring things. It depends on what you’re doing and if that makes you and your users happy, which of course was the whole point of the article.

    I just feel sorry for the arrogant prick.

    Cheers.

    Reply
    • Amy

      Thanks, Aditya. You’re right – being a small co IS exciting, with so much less bullshit, too.

      Reply
  4. Steven Noble

    A bonus: in my experience, there is a strong relationship between the things a person is good at and the things that s/he enjoys.

    I’m not suggesting people enjoy things the find easy. More that people enjoy things they are capable of mastering (with effort).

    Case in point, I don’t think I could ever master the art of teaching a group. I can give a speech to a group and field questions. I can tutor an individual if our personalities are a good match. But I could never orchestrate a class.

    But I gather you teach entrepreneurship. For most people, this wouldn’t come easily, but some people can master this with effort. If mastering this was something that you enjoyed, then there’s a pretty good chance that it’s something you’re good at too.

    We’re all more effective when we play to our strengths. It’s makes us all better off. Likewise I’m sure there are people who enjoy the endless hussle and political battles of high-pressure entrepreneurship. If they do, then that could be a good area to focus their energy.

    Reply
    • Amy

      Hi Steven, hard points to disagree with! And I don’t disagree at all. To the contrary.

      But some people (like the guy who left that nasty comment that I quoted) feel comfortable telling other people that mere personal happiness is not enough. THAT I disagree with. What a person does with his or her life is his or her business.

      Reply
  5. Shane

    Great comments Amy. I love nothing more than hearing the ‘other side of the story’. Now it’s coming out, it’s almost strange it hasn’t happened sooner. If I may add a small take of my own.

    The status quo is almost always wrong. There was a time the startup was the laughable, gutsy, criticised, path less travelled. Now it seems to be skewed under the weight of popularity. The comments and methods you describe are the new ‘right’. The new good. The new success. In every sense of the word.

    Keep it up, I’ll keep following closely.

    Reply
    • Amy

      Thanks, Shane! I agree, the whole thing is strange.

      I don’t even really believe that startups are now the status quo — though you & I both agree that they SOUND like they are. They sure make a lot of noise, probably because of the twin drivers of massive profit (for VCs) and the lottery dream (for “founders”).

      You are 100% right that the funded startup is now the baseline metric for success. What a sad thing.

      Little businesses have always been the status quo. Almost all big businesses today started out as little businesses, not a giant funded push. Strange that people find this idea so challenging.

      Reply
  6. Charlie Flowers

    Amy,

    I love what you’re doing and what you’re saying. I have known the truth of it ever since exiting a VC-startup-gone-wrong in 2001. Unfortunately, I’ve spent my time being a “kept man” (aka, Consulting) since then, all the while dreaming about stepping out there and building my stuff. Keep talking … maybe you will help me get over the hump.

    Reply
    • Amy

      Sorry to hear that, Charlie! But I’ve been there too (minus the funding experience – that I just watched from many, many sidelines). There IS a way off the treadmill :)

      Reply
  7. Nathan Broadbent

    I’ve read all three of these “controversial” blog posts, and I understood nothing, apart from “Some people are dicks, everyone needs to chill out”.

    Freckle looks great, by the way.

    Reply
    • Amy

      Thanks, Nathan! It really is a tempest in a tea pot. But I figure that if I just bowed out while other people tried to insult me for doing what I loved — and called Justin’s premise “disgusting” — that would have a chilling effect on other people, both would-be bootstrappers and writers.

      This shit really is NOT controversial. But people are acting like it is. Must be scaring somebody.

      Reply
  8. Ralph Haygood

    I generally agree with all of the above.

    Another thing I get really tired of hearing from this crowd is that there must be something wrong with me because I work alone, that is, I’m a solo founder. The existence of any number of highly successful solo-founded companies seems to make no impression on these people.

    Entreporn, eh? My own term is “entrepreneurshit.”

    Reply
  9. Andy Wibbels

    Great stuff! Everyone likes a good slappy-fight in the ‘spheres. It is odd how close-minded ideas of success can be. I haven’t been in ‘product creation’ mode in a while and I miss it. Glad to find your blog and your ideas. The unicorn stabbing the narwhal is frigging awesome.

    Reply
  10. Brent Shepherd

    Thanks for this post Amy. Your clarity has helped me clarify the internal conflict I’ve been experiencing lately – enjoying working on things I love, but feeling like I should be working on things that would make for hardcore Entreporn.

    Reply
  11. Nick Stewart

    Make things. Help people. Be happy.

    Awesome message. The idea of giving the reins of my projects to a VC (or other scary entity) is terrifying.

    BTW why is this soo controversial? Try bootstrapping by building a small product and selling it. If you succeed then you have a viable business model with money coming in and you don’t need VC. If your product fails (too few sales) then your model sucks and you have no business spending other peoples’ money.

    I’m adding your blog to my Internet Marketing News site.

    Reply
  12. molly

    Ugh! I am absolutely happy to pay a little more for software that is attractive. It is simply more enjoyable for me to use, and if it’s software that I will be using regularly then it is definitely worth it. I don’t get “duped” into paying a little extra for beautiful software. I make a conscious decision to do so.

    The person who wrote that comment sounds like they are one of the software developers who make the ugly software I hate using. I guess they pat themselves on the back for not “duping” me into purchasing something I enjoy using.

    Reply
  13. TVD

    First of all, Freckle Time Tracking is both beautiful and inspired. If you can’t tell the difference between CSS Trends and thoughtful UI/UX, then chances are you’re no good at either.

    The problem with the Sillicon Valley fantasy is the inherent escapism. You have to run away from your life’s challenges and opportunities to pursue “The Dream” in some unfamiliar place. Sillicon Valley is the Ellis Island of Entreporn.

    Business is about execution and sticking around and that’s the kind of business owner I feel comfortable giving my money to. If you’re not even planning to be around for long, then what’s the point of me forming a relationship with you?

    What’s the point of me relying on your tools or building my business on top of your platform if you’re only here until the next best offer arrives?

    Reply
    • Amy

      Thanks, TVD :) And I agree. Being a customer of such a startup is also a risk! Nobody’s defending the customers when something hideous happens — when services are shut down because they can’t sustain themselves, because they were hoping to grow big and be rescued by a white knight… or when the white knight rides up and does the shutting down himself. Or corrupts the product. Or it disappears for months and only reemerges ages later, half-destroyed by the corporate influences of the acquirer.

      Reply
  14. Ryan Critchett

    Woosah! You definitely have a reason to speak out. I agree on many levels. Too many people insisting this whole thing needs to be morbid, and not enough awesome, happy people doing something different. Speak it! Speak it!!

    Reply
  15. Laurence McCahill

    Some great points. Happy startups anyone? :)

    We adopt a similar approach. Bootstrapping in-house ‘micro’ startups that are either scratching our own itch or our a labour of love.

    Our blog is called appiness for the reasons you covered (happiness, apps, geddit?). Make yourself happy and you’ll have happy employees, clients, customers and suppliers (within reason of course :)).

    Reply
  16. Jessica Newell

    It’s taken me a full year to weed through entreporn to realize that I want nothing to do with what most businesses are offering online. Only in a very few cases have I not been disappointed in some way for an online service I’ve but my hard-earned money on.

    Wasted time and wasted cash. Now I’m back to square one – starting a real live grown up biz – something I’ve waited my whole live to do.

    Feels good to see others out there who think like me – it might mean that I will actually have people want to work with me and not entreporn stars!

    Reply
    • Amy

      You’re not alone, Jessica! Stick around :)

      I know what you mean about the disappointment. IMO, people need to stop worrying about Reinventing XYZ boil-the-ocean startup strategies and focus on fixing all the “shitty basics.”

      Reply
  17. Jason "J-Ryze" Fonceca

    I think I’m in heaven.

    Unf.

    Amy, you rock so hard.

    Make things. Help people. Be happy is a FANTASTIC message.

    And while ‘mundane’, it has almost become controversial, because so few consciously align with it.

    Sharing this, more people need to hear it :)

    Reply

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