04/05/2012 11:28 am ET Updated Jun 05, 2012

The Startup Fog

Startups aren't always as difficult as most people imagine them to be. While popular media spends so much time focused on the idea of people sleeping under their desks and pouring their souls into building a successful (or unsuccessful) company, they largely miss out on the real reason building a company is different from most other jobs. Sure, everyone involved has a lot on their plate. But, for the most part, the people I've worked with at early-stage companies thrive on that; no one that I work with is looking to shift gears into something "easier." And, as much as you hear successful startup folks reminisce about how tough the "early days" were, when you're in the throes of building something that has a chance at making the world a better place, you never hear anyone complain about the workload. It's the job we signed up for, and, honestly, it's fun.

The tough part about building a company is much less about the effort required, and much more about the uncertainty and ambiguity surrounding every new twist and turn; you really don't know if it's going to work until after it does. Almost everything between the creation of a new idea and building a robust and profitable company is undertaken within a near total fog of said uncertainty and ambiguity. Of course, it doesn't always feel that way. Some days the fog lifts and you can see for miles, while others, you can barely see your hand in front of your face. In the meantime, everyone expects you to have all the answers. After all, why else would you be working so hard and evangelizing so eloquently about the new future you might enable? And even crazier, why would you be happy about having the opportunity to stumble around in a fog of uncertainty?

Following this analogy for just one more second, I'd be willing to bet that almost every new company that actually has a real chance to scale is born high on a hilltop, looking over the fog in the valley below, with a clear view of a new world somewhere far away on the other side of the valley. The hard part, of course, is the journey from that hilltop to the distant place where everything "just works." It's impossible to tell how far away that place is or see the most efficient path to get there.

So, you start. And you know what's possible, because you've seen it. The job at a startup is to find your way there. And that's where we regularly find ourselves -- in the fog, with a mental picture of where we're going, and the belief in ourselves and our teams that we'll get there, even if there are a few detours along way.

This is what's tough about startups. Not the hours, but the uncertainty.

My personal experience tells me the single most important attribute of a great teammate in an early-stage, ambitious company is the ability to constructively and purposefully deal with ambiguity. People who aren't comfortable in this territory inevitably feel like they are one step away from walking off a cliff every single day... and that's just not a sustainable way to live.
Fortunately, there are ways to deal with this fog productively and purposefully; and staying focused on those things is what makes being part of a startup so rewarding.

A few of the tools that I use to stay sane when the fog is thickest:

Find a hill.
There's nothing like a reminder of where you're headed to bring clarity and focus to what you're working on right now. This is why, for all its cliché, it is beyond important to spend time on a five-year vision of how you'll change the world. When everyone is on the same page with respect to destination, it makes even the hardest conversation about which way to turn seem palatable. It keeps your current decisions in perspective. It makes it easy and authentic to say, "I don't know which way to move here either, but I know exactly where we want to end up. Let's play out a few scenarios." When you can't see your hand in front of your face, take your team to the nearest hilltop and check out the view. It helps.

Talk to everyone you meet. And then listen... really listen.
The most hilarious thing I hear from first time founders is the idea that they "can't talk to anyone about their idea, their vision or their tactics because someone might steal it." The truth is that there are an infinite number of ideas out there and not nearly enough people to tackle them. So talk to people! Tell people what you're working on, ask them what they think, talk to them about things you haven't built yet to see how they react, talk to them about the vision and see if it resonates. Talk, talk, talk. And then listen closely.

As much as going to conferences can be a total time suck, you get one great thing from them: perspective. It's the place where, in 15 minutes on a stage, you can talk to 500 people and then spend an entire day listening to what they think about what you're doing and how you're doing it. Do they get it? Do they love it? Does it strike a chord, or does it fall flat? The truth is that it doesn't really matter what reaction you get. What matters is that you hear it and can get back to work with more information than you had the day before, chopping away at the uncertainty bit by bit. You don't need the stage or a conference to do this; you just need to put what you're working on in front of people who don't see it every second of every day and learn how they view it.

Experiment cheaply.
This means something very different depending on the stage of your company, but when you're dealing with a truly early-stage company (and not Facebook, Zynga or even Airbnb), experimentation means testing the ground in front of you before you jump onto it with both feet.

We built our first product in two days and showed it to hundreds of people. We built our second version in two weeks and launched it at South by Southwest, after literally pulling an all-nighter in an RV because our user group testing (that included my little brother and any friends we could round up) failed its initial round. We built the third version in eight weeks and have been iterating on that for the past six months. And the amazing thing is that, in hindsight, I don't think we experimented cheaply enough. We could have learned faster if we had more potential users reviewing our work on a more regular basis.

Recently, we've been rounding up groups of people who have never heard of Zaarly and putting wireframes (think blueprint of what your computer screen would look like) of our upcoming releases in front of them to see how they respond. I can't tell you how powerful that is in the decision-making process... it literally changes our product every single time. The tools available today to test new ideas before building them are better than ever before. Whatever you think you know about your next product or your next release will be that much better if you experiment with new ideas and new users before building.

Embrace it. What would you rather be doing?
Seriously, what we get to do for a living is so fun it seems unfair to the people who don't get to experience the joyful chaos that comes along with being in a startup. What would you rather be doing? Working at IBM? Management consulting? Waiting tables? Practicing Law? Ugh. No way.

Remind yourself and your team of that from time to time. For all the ambiguity, arguments and crazy hours that come along with building something new, it boils down to the fact that I feel lucky to have an opportunity to work on something that could really make a difference, at a time in history when almost anything is possible.

All that other stuff is just part of the ride.