Chris McCann's Personal Blog

Life's too short to not do awesome things

The blood, sweat, and tears of living the startup life.

with 23 comments

TLDR: Startups are unimaginably difficult. Tweet this.

Right now joining or starting a startup is the sexy thing to do, but don’t get fooled by the hype.

It’s so easy to get swept up in the great stories and lives of people like Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Elon Musk & how successful their respective companies are. It’s tempting to sit in your bed at night dreaming of leaving your high paying banking or corporate job and heading west to Silicon Valley, leaving the cubicle farm to make a difference and change the world.

All of this startup activity is awesome and necessary for our economy but before you make the decision you should do a serious gut check and fully understand if this is the life you want to live.

Because the harsh reality is startups are unimaginably hard.

On the surface level startups involves more responsibility, less pay, and more sacrifices, but this is just the beginning down the rabbit hole. It’s very hard to articulate how being in a startup is really like without firsthand experience, but I hope to illuminate a glimpse into this reality.

Here are a few representative examples:

  • Twitter – Twitter originally began its life as Odeo in July 2005 as a platform for podcasting. They raised money, hired 14 people, but the product was going completely sideways. After much hardship they decided to throw out a couple of side projects, one of them being Twttr (Twitter, originally didn’t have any vowels in their name) in July 2006. Their initial launch didn’t get great reviews and even then it took a few years after this for Twitter to get any real traction.

  • OMGPOP – Began it’s life as I’minlikewithyou in 2006 as a flirting application, then changed to a multiplayer social gaming network (at that point they changed their name to OMGPOP), hired a professional CEO in the middle of that, raised $17M, launched 35 separate games of which none ever got real traction and they were planning on running out of money and shutting down in May 2012. This is when they created their “overnight success” iPhone game Draw Something which was bought by Zynga for $180M.

  • SpaceX – They are an orbital rocket company which took the complete opposite of the “lean startup approach”. They crashed their first 3 rockets, blew through $120M, Elon Musk the founder was practically bankrupt, and all this happened before their first successful rocket launch.

  • Foursquare – The idea of Foursquare started in 1999 when Dennis Crowley, the founder, started Dodgeball one of the first social/location based applications. After basically being completely broke, collecting unemployment checks and teaching kids how to snowboard for $8/hr, they officially incorporated Dodgeball in 2004. Long story short they were bought by Google, then shut down by Google, and the same idea was turned into today’s successful Foursquare after 12+ years.

  • Rovio (Angry Birds) – Started in 2003 after the founders participated in a gaming hackathon. They developed and launched 51 separate games before Angry Birds which was created in December 2009. The “overnight success” of Angry Birds took 8 years and $42M

During these long stretches of unsuccessful launches and failures, its easy to feel depressed.

Personally there were moments in StartupDigest‘s history where my co-founder and I literally couldn’t afford for rent the next month and things just weren’t working. This was all happening after leaving the steady career path, putting my heart and soul into the company, and having other people on payroll who depended on us living. Layer on top of this normal personal stresses, relationships stresses, and things can get overwhelming.

This is the reality of running a startup. Most people (who aren’t insane) could never withstand the psychological and social pressures associated with a startup. The personal sacrifice is almost unbearable. This is why people say “start a company you are passionate about” because a passion for the problem you are solving is literally the only thing that will keep you alive. It’s that undying-will that you can change the world and belief that you will personally make it happen.

This is why most startups fail. Don’t be fooled by the hype. Do a startup because you care about it not because it’s the cool thing to do.

If you’re already in a startup and feeling overwhelmed I highly recommend watching “Running the Sahara” to help put things in perspective. Also here are some personal tips that have helped me through the hard times:

  • Keep moving – Even if its just a little bit everyday. Accomplishing small goals and keeping momentum is one of the most important things to staying alive.
  • Expect the unexpected – It’s impossible to know everything that will happen in advance.
  • Ignorance is bliss – If you knew all the hardships ahead beforehand it would be incredibly hard to ever start.
  • Pushing personal limits – Your own personal limits are the only thing stopping you not your competition, lack of money, lack of market share, etc.
  • The experience is the journey itself – It’s not about the end (acquisition, IPO, etc) but the everyday moments that make startups what they are.

End notes: 

  • Being an early employee helps alleviate much of this initial stress, being a late employee alleviates a lot of these stresses. Although ultimately these stresses are always present
  • There are very rare counter-examples of startups who do well from the beginning but that’s incredibly rare and most likely not going to happen to you.

Hacker news discussion here.


Written by Chris McCann

March 29, 2012 at 11:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

23 Responses

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  1. Thank you Chris for sharing your personal story and for pointing out that many of those successes today (Twitter et al) did not all happen ‘overnight’. Running a start-up is not glamorous (until – and if – you hit the mother lode). I completely agree with you that at the end of the day, you need to be in the startup life for reasons other than getting rich quickly or being in positions of power. You need to love what you do.

    That’s how I keep pushing our little site everyday (student-run, student-driven, student-loved). God knows what’s going to happen in the months down the road (just thinking about payroll gives me a cardiac arrest). We’ll just keep trudging on. At the end of the day, regardless of the outcome, there will be no regrets. Because we loved.

    Thanks for the advice – and keep on sending those startup digests!


    April 6, 2012 at 4:26 pm

  2. There’s always going to be those amazing stories of successful entrepreneurs with ground-breaking ideas or amazing design talent, but the rest of us just need perseverance to succeed.

    Justin Chen (@jc22)

    April 6, 2012 at 4:39 pm

  3. “If you knew all the hardships ahead beforehand it would be incredibly hard to ever start.”

    I actually read and was told about the hardship of entrepreneurship ahead of time. I had a meeting with a founder who just had an IPO and shared with me all his low moments and asked if I was still interested. I said “yes, of course.” I thought I knew. Turned out living through it all give me new a whole new perspective. The extreme emotional roller coaster experience is something that I could never imagine. The reality for my case is much more extreme that what I ever imagined or anticipated.

    Thanks for the digests.

    Pierre Jaune

    April 6, 2012 at 6:06 pm

  4. Thank you for an absolutely inspiring story and for sharing your personal experiences and lessons learned. I enjoy reading your newsletters and look forward to getting them. Thank you for all your hard work in putting it together.

    Nillie Goldman
    Founder and Publisher

    Nillie Goldman

    April 6, 2012 at 7:24 pm

  5. Love the “rabbit hole” video!

    Success can ONLY be measured moving from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm. Winston Churchill

    Thanks so much for the post.


  6. Great post. Done all the above with two kids under 3. Not easy. But passion trumps trials.

  7. Well put, Chris. I think the guys and gals who are able to stay in the game develop a sort of detached, almost emotionless, Vulcan-like defense mechanism to all the bad sh*t that happens when running a startup (and there’s ALWAYS a constant stream of bad stuff…setbacks, rejection, key people leaving you at critical moments, VCs ignoring you, Arrington bashing you publicly, privacy glitch becoming public, etc.) yet they still somehow maintain an irrational, magnetic exuberance and passion for what they’re building.

    It’s probably a biological quirk in some people…sort of like how Nature has (supposedly) hard wired women to forget how painful the birth of their first kid was, so that they go and have another, and the species survives. Ok, a little out there, but you get my drift! 🙂 Nathan

  8. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for your post. It is great to know people can relate to the world I live in. A lot of people think you do a start up only to become rich, but that’s simply not the case. I’m sure some people join start ups for that reason, but founders are motivated by much more than just a paycheck. I know I love my start up. I’m passionate about the team, the customers, the product and the potential. Every success is exciting and every failure drives me to work twice as hard. It’s not easy and success is never assured – that is what makes it so fun.


    April 7, 2012 at 5:17 pm

  9. […] ואחד מהמייסדים של StartupDigest ופורסם במקור באנגלית בבלוג האישי של כריס מקאן. תגים: Startup 101, גיל שוויד, ישי גרין, מארק צוקרברג, […]

  10. […] Startup Digest founder Chris McCann succinctly stated, “Startups are unimaginably difficult.” […]

  11. I’ve worked for start-ups and they’re a blast. Never cashed in though. I learned a bunch on what works and what doesn’t.

    I coach a number of start ups and they’re wonderful clients. I have to keep reminding, more like asking, them what’s working. Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees.

    Steve Borek

    April 9, 2012 at 5:38 pm

  12. I can’t thank you enough for sharing this story. I have sat down over the course of one year to think why I was stupid to ever want to start something or even decide to stand up for something. Trying it from a location where there are stereotypes and other barriers I have had my own share of disappointments and rejections but when I sit back I realize I surrounded myself with all good reasons to start and the reasons are still available and it keeps pushing me.

    I actually am happy that I had the ability to stand up for something in my life for once, I have not achieved the final aim which is to actually help other people by solving the need in the market which is why I jumped in and perhaps have at least little money enough to pay rents, eat .Even though I have not achieved any yet I am glad somehow looking at the product we have built, I am glad for standing up for something, I am glad for believing in something, I am glad to have dealt with procrastination, fear. I am glad that I stayed hungry, sacrificed my time, energy and money into what I considered a good cause with respect to helping people where there are.

    Recently I have tried to get back my self esteem and not think that I am the crazy one because I decided to embark on this journey. I just hope I get a chance to fulfil my mission but its hard staying hungry,broke without insurance. At least I tried and am still trying but it will not be nice to wake up and discover that while I went to work for someone so I can pay my rent and debt I lost everything I suffered for without even getting users thank me for the good the site has done for them.

    Those who know me personally know that I am passionate in solving real life problems, making sure people benefit and if I can solve my own little problems along the way too, why not? You’ve got to eat to be able to be effective.

    I will share your blog, I hope others will be inspired too

    AniOko (@anioko1)

    April 9, 2012 at 6:01 pm

  13. Fantastic article! I have a hypothesis that to many entrepreneurs the risk to our health of not pursuing our dreams is far more dangerous.

    I must admit I found your Odeo reference a little distracting. A better date to use would be October 2004 when Evan Williams left Google and started Odeo. I also wonder if the story of Blogger isn’t the stronger story as told in Founders at Work compiled by Jessica Livingston, where Williams literally had to lay off every employee and continue on just himself.

    Lloyd Dewolf

    April 10, 2012 at 5:59 am

  14. […] west to Silicon Valley, leaving the cubicle farm to make a difference and change the world. The blood, sweat, and tears of living the startup life. « Chris McCanns Personal Blog. ← back […]

  15. […] The blood, sweat, and tears of living the startup life. […]

  16. Excellent post – here are two more
    1) Computer 2000 was started in 1983 with the equivalent of $15,000 after 9 month we were planning to shut it down the day we got our first big order. Three years later we ran out of money and were considered a takeover candidate. Turned it around and the company reach it’s first billion $ in revenue ten years later being the largest computer distributor in Europe, the third largest in the world.

    2) In 2007 I started Xeequa a social media business solution. The project went sideways and we stopped the development the day we re-architected it’s core to a little online business card. Found a few thousand beta users and launched the project August 5, 2011 (4 years later). We grew all of a sudden by over 1,000 new users per day – Over 1,000,000 today – just 8 month later with zero marketing budget – or any budget for that matter 🙂 Welcome to startup land!


    Axel Schultze

    April 15, 2012 at 10:48 am

  17. […] very hard to explain to someone without direct experience but I tried my best in this post…Comment Loading… • Post • 5:43pm  Add […]

  18. What were the results of the first Thiel Fellowship Class?…

    This really isn’t an answer so I will probably get downvoted but I will say it anyway. It’s ridiculously hard to judge the success or failure of something new within the first two years. “Most” startups take 10+ years to materialize (yes there are …


    June 15, 2012 at 12:37 am

  19. Thanks for writing this post, Chris. I always try to remember stories like this when I’m feeling down about my start-up, and it helps to have a few more to reflect on. I always tell people the same thing – the glory associated with doing a start-up is just a lot of hype. The reality is that it’s a long, hard road that requires a lot of self-reflection and inflicts a lot of self-doubt. But does it rock to do something you love doing? Yes.


    July 5, 2012 at 3:54 pm

  20. I’m torn… on the one hand, I find a lot of meaning in your post but also a lot of stuff I’ve heard many times over. “Meaning” because I started my first biz back in the early 90’s, had email before any of the Fortune 100 even, then a webpage, but blew it because we couldn’t see beyond our noses.

    Today, I look back on that experience with fondness; when people ask about experience I point to my first 5 years of entrepreneurship; “That’s my MBA, and it has value far beyond Wharton.” It’s like sex; if you’re a virgin, you can talk about it all you want….

    But by far, the ONE quality I think is the most valuable, is resourcefulness. Finding ways to do things is a direct result of thinking. As the legend Larry Bird once said: “I wasn’t blessed with athletic ability, I’m not quick and I can’t jump a lick. So I just thought the game out.”

    Education, therefore, the transmission of technique, how to think; research, analyze, synthesize, compare… nothing is more important. That and exposing kids to creativity, wonder…

    Our schools do nothing of the sort. I believe it’s fundamental as to why we’re in such bad shape on so many levels.


    August 9, 2012 at 6:01 am

  21. Reblogged this on Enlightened Kenyan.


    November 23, 2012 at 9:50 am

  22. […] are hard in more ways than you can imagine. Chris McCann’s post reveals the sweat, blood, and tears involved in a startup founder’s […]

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