How to Ensure Your Startup Is a Success -- No Matter What Happens

Last Updated Aug 29, 2011 4:09 PM EDT

The success of a startup is not in the exit; it's in the story of the exit. Here are two scenarios to show you what I mean.

Success example No. 1: I have a friend who has had three exits. Now he's on his fourth company. For other entrepreneurs, a $3 million exit would be a huge win. Not for this guy. He swears he won't exit for less than $150 million -- because after three exits, the only thing left is the size of the exit. So he's struggling in a B round to find a sustainable business model, so that eventually he will be able to say that he exited his fourth company for at least $150 million.

Success example No. 2: When I founded my first company, I knew nothing about exits and startups. I stumbled into funding from the guy who was my boss at the time. I created partnerships with a software company and Swarthmore College, mostly because both of them were looking for something to do with the extra content they had. For the final lucky stroke, I bought the domain math.com by pretending I was a little kid on the phone. Then I exited for a very small amount of money because I wanted to be able to say I sold a company. And then I had to get another job.

Here's how I describe the company to people: I founded my first company by creating a joint venture with Swarthmore College and Encore Software and I sold it three months after I launched. It sounds good, doesn't it?

It was good -- at the time. And that's my point: Always frame what you do as good for you. For the most part, what happens to your company is probably what is best for your company at that point -- the market is not stupid, and sometimes it's hard to see the value of what you're doing when you're doing it.

The skill here is to get good at framing your own experience. This is not lying. This is admitting that there are 10 versions of every story, and you need to tell the version of your own story that will help you get what you want next.

You see candidates do this all the time in resumes. They leave off the job from which they were fired and they don't talk about it in the interview. Then after you hire them you find out that they are late to work every day. It's smart of them. And, hopefully, their performance is so good that the tardiness doesn't matter. (Note: Some of you will say this is lying. It's not. Your resume is not your life story. It's a marketing document.)

Here's how that would look when you talk about a startup:
  • Don't focus on the startup that was a flop. You don't need to tell people every business you did.
  • Don't talk about how you got pushed out of the company. People don't care. You can ignore that fact and just tell people all the stuff you did when you were at the company.
  • Don't reveal there was no revenue. Startups aren't always evaluated on revenue, so it's OK if you talk about other accomplishments without mentioning the aspects of the company that didn't go well.
A lot of times we get mired in the question of whether or not our company will be successful. But it's hard to make decisions on a day-to-day basis when we are constantly worried about our whole company failing or what it will look like to other people.

It's really freeing in all of life -- but especially in startup life -- to trust that what you do and the decisions you make will create something worth talking about. You will create some sort of value for yourself that you will be able to convey to other people. Value is not always measured by dollars -- it's experience, data points, and knowledge to move on to the next thing in your life.

Really, our goal is not to sit around and count our money. Our goal is to continually learn and grow in an environment that is conducive to healthy personal relationships as well. You can do that at a startup that is a mess -- if you let yourself.

Flickr photo courtesy of aloshbennett, CC 2.0

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