If you want insider stories about entrepreneurship from all aspects, ask Vitaly Golomb. He’s the author of Accelerated Startup and a speaker and investor in global startups. I’ve turned to him since 2015, after we met at TEDxSF. It was then that he taught me about the lack of emotional fitness in startup founders, the depression they face, the loneliness at the top and also, suicides within the startup community. This time, I asked Vitaly about ways to make the life of young entrepreneurs easier. Read our conversation for tangible feedback and an insider’s perspective on succeeding - and failing - in the world of startups.
Nora: Some people outside Silicon Valley tend to say, “If I lived in Silicon Valley, I’d have already built the next billion dollar startup.” Then I go to San Francisco and I find people wandering around, not really knowing what to do or where to start. Am I the only one who thinks it’s not that easy there?
Vitaly: I just came back from Costa Rica. I was there for an event. Many of the people there said the same thing: “Everything is very difficult” and “There’s not enough this or that.” I get the same stories from the different people. I always tell them, “It’s kind of funny, because you say the same thing, just with a different accent.” Same story in Tunisia or Ukraine or UK or Singapore.
From the outside it seems that there is everything there but there really isn’t. Silicon Valley works in a series of concentric circles. It takes a long time to break in, to build a trusted network, to build your reputation and to get people to trust you - all before they even consider investing their time or money in you.
Nora: You got into that inner-circle and you also make an effort to spend a lot of time outside of the Silicon Valley bubble. What made you want to write a book to share your experience? What is something that outsiders don’t understand?
Vitaly: It is very obvious that they don’t understand that startups are a really different animal. When I was first pitching my book, I learned even publishers think, “There are a lots of business books already.” They don’t understand that startups a special kind of new business and the topic is really specialized and deep. Yes, it’s true, there are many popular books out there, but some of them are biographical or inspirational. That’s great, but it’s really difficult for the average college kid, or somebody from the Balkans, to identify and relate to Ben Horowitz on his struggle to build a billion dollar company and go public. It’s a great book, but it doesn’t really tell anyone how to do anything.
Vitaly: My intent was to make a practical, step-by-step textbook. It helps you ask the right questions: “Where do great business ideas come from? Why should I spend years of my life on it? How do I go from an idea to building a billion dollar unicorn?” I learned a lot of these lessons the hard way and I am trying to pass it on. It’s a difficult process. It takes years to launch something. Overnight successes really don’t exist.
Nora: People tend to forget that and they don’t want to fail. Why are people afraid of failure so much?
Vitaly: Here’s the main thing people need to understand about startups. In the early days, startups are closer to a science experiment than a business. By definition, you should be leveraging newly available technology to solve a problem in a way no one has ever done before. If you are not failing, you are not a genius but are likley not pushing hard enough and limiting your potential disruption and ability to make a real impact. Most experiments fail but that doesn’t mean scientists give up. They just pick up the lessons and itterate. Same thing in the startup world.
Really your goal here is to come up with a breakthrough that allows you to solve a problem - 10x better, 10x faster, or 10x cheaper. If you can do a combination of those in a fast-growing market, you will be riding a unicorn.
All that said, keep in mind, no one is perfect and Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, or Mark Zuckerberg happen once or twice in a generation. They are not the right kind of role model. For most people, that is not how it is going to work.
Nora: The most people will do is move to San Francisco, use up their savings, stay for a couple of months, and hope for the best.
Vitaly: San Francisco is one of the most expensive places in the world. It tests people really quickly. Separates the men from the boys and the girls from the women very quickly. You have to have money to stay here. In Hollywood, it’s much cheaper to live as a struggling actor. But you can’t be a struggling entrepreneur for long here.
Nora: They have to put themselves out there – but how can they find an investor? Definitely not at events, as you wrote in your book.
Vitaly: That’s kind of true for the Bay area. If you do meet some one at one of the million events any night of the week, you’ll likely spend a year building a relationship with them before any kind of deal will happen. It’s a relationship and trust-based business. There’s no shortcut to that. Talent on its own is not enough. It is definitly about who knows and trusts you, who’s willing to recommend you to other investors, etc. If you are coming from another country, you are starting from scratch.
In the end, founders should be wary of aiming to be the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. Being practical will save budding entrepreneurs not only time and money, but also disappointment and from feeling like a total failure. Learn from your missteps. And find mentors and idols in the everyday people (hint: people like Vitaly) whose success may be less famous, but who are no less extraordinary.