The Startup Polygamist

I was recently at a fancy business networking breakfast (like LinkedIn, but with large cinnamon rolls) and got into a conversation with a young entrepreneur. He opened his mouth and began pitching. He had this product which was growing like wildfire in the mobile space. When customers saw it, they gave looks of amazement (he demonstrated this) and said things like: “you mean it can _____?! This is going to revolutionize my business.” In a political application, the product could actually be used to predict and determine with close to 100% accuracy who would win a local election. You’d be CRAZY not to buy it.

Naturally, I was intrigued. Sounds like a great product. So how did you come up with it? It was a long story (requiring two sausage links, a biscuit, and some mixed fruit) but it was while he was working on this other product in eCommerce, and after he developed it, he realized that there was a huge pent up demand for his company (or companies) to provide mobile services.

I had seen this movie before.

“So which product do you think has the most potential?” I asked. They, of course, all had enormous potential. He demonstrated to me again what customers looked like when they saw his product (but this time a different product) and quoted another customer comment. By this time, it had also come out that he had less than a million in revenue, but fortunately each of his ventures was sure to double or triple in the next year.

You’ve got to be careful when you tell a polygamist that they need to drop a wife or two. They have often grown attached to each one in different ways and it’s hard to choose without feeling (in a strange way) unfaithful. But I felt it my duty.

I explained that we had started our company with an only half decent idea and a hacked-together product. It wasn’t fancy, but people liked it and since we were young and inexperienced, we didn’t know enough look for alternatives. As a result, we worked like slaves at the service of this middling idea in the niche of a niche market, growing it from zero to over $20M in five years. And we kept on growing after that, from startup into a real business. It wasn’t Facebook, but it paid the bills, employed 200 people in the middle of the Great Recession, and helped more than 7,000 customers fix tech problems faster.

I told him about how Steve Jobs, with billions in revenue and thousands of employees had started working on a tablet, but decided to put the tablet on hold (on hold!) so that he could turn the technology into a phone instead. Then he waited three whole years before launching the iPad.

I was getting worked up.

One thing at a time, my friend! Mozart was the only great composer to work on multiple musical scores at the same time. Every other master (Bach, Beethoven, Handel) finished one before starting another.

Do you think you would have a better chance of a successful marriage (he was a devoted family man) by marrying more than one woman? Then why more than one good idea? When Pavarotti asked “Shall I be a teacher or a singer?” his father told him, “Luciano, if you try to sit on two chairs, you will fall between them. For life, you must choose one chair.”

My closing argument:

So, my friend, unless you are a combination of Mozart and Steve Jobs, and can bend the spoon of mortal startup physics, you should place both cheeks firmly in one chair and try to make do with just one of your great ideas.

The conversation ended cordially with him smiling and handing me a fourth business card (this time for a solution of his in the education space). He continued pitching as I backed away slowly, blaming some meeting.

Ideas are important, and some are so important that they can change the world and make a lot of money in the process. You don’t know when you start out which ones are going to be big (who would have thought that Twitter would amount to anything?). What you do know is that it’s not going to be big without your complete focus. You have to read each book like a classic rather than a comic, because sometimes it’s the reading that makes it so.

There are lots of good ideas, and, as others have pointed out, often a good source is your own problems, but more important than the idea is the focus required to get it off the ground. A good company is better than a great idea.

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