I’m God, you’re not

By Bertie Stephens on November 19th, 2012

The title says it. Easy to say, right? Four words, six if you remove the contractions. But as I’m no longer struggling to reach a word count for a university assignment, I’ll stick with four. But that’s where the problem starts for do-ers (i.e., entrepreneurs): university.

It might be why so many apparently drop out.

I agree with the need for University – wholeheartedly – even if I spent the last two years of my degree sitting on the film set of that well-known boy wizard. What I didn’t agree with was the majority of our guest lecturers, and some core ones. It was their general attitude – that they were the messiahs, and we were all simply naughty boys.

Most we comfortable presenting themselves along the lines of the headline above. I guess it was that “cantankerous, opinionated, frustrated little man” inside me (someone once called me that after I refused him a job), who thought that they may well have great experiences I could learn from, but that perhaps they should impart them with a little less self-regard.

I have written three columns so far for The Kernel, and they’ve asked me if I’d write a few more. I will. I enjoy it; I’m founding a start-up, we have investment, we have lots of problems, we have minor successes. So I have a lot of stories to tell of where we screwed up, where we may well screw up in the future, and how damn hard it all is. But oddly, it turns out I’m not God.

Worse, my lack of God complex means I may never be a university guest lecturer.

So, I’ll write words for you, but don’t take them as gospel.

I found myself all but apologising to another founder a few weeks ago. My start-up is one of those companies that spends money it doesn’t make, in a bid to make its own money later. Sure, we have a strategy and business model that financially transacts from day one, but by raising money it almost felt like we were cheating.

The other founder, like my last company, spent only the money her company had made. I mean, come on. How dumb is that? So 1990s.(As we get to know each other, you’ll learn my “humour” is dry.)

The truth is, every time I used to read about someone raising a humongous amount of money on the back a ridiculous valuation, I felt I’d lost some sort of competition. I’d always check the age of the founder for some reason.

(I’m 26, in case you’re interested. You shouldn’t be. Turns out it means nothing.)

But the funding thing, well. It’s a trap.

I meet too many people trying to start something without a clear vision, who are stuck in a loop of reading and dreaming, fuelled by the deluge of online content about what everyone else is starting. It turns them into procrastinators, not entrepreneurs.

First, when you’re building an online startup and reading every scrap of news about what everyone else is doing, the industry feels narrow. The template for a “tech start-up” seems to be: raise money, spend money acquiring users for a social, mobile, photo or videosharing app with no revenue model in sight, continue growing team despite negative P/L, and… become a blogosphere success, darling!

Reading too many blogs narrows your idea of success, and how to get there.

I went to a tech conference put on by a well-known magazine recently. I assume most of the attendees were paying around £3 a minute to be there like I was, and that, like me, they were there to learn something.

There were a lot of people doing new things that were social. And mobile. With movies and photos.

And that’s nice! People should try new things, even if a lot of them seemed like quite familiar new things.

But when the representative of an industry titan gets up to speak, from a business that had $24 billion in revenues last year, that actually, you know, makes something people want enough to pay for, when that person stands up, it’s probably worth having a respectful listen to see if you can learn something.

Now, I’m a young person, building something in a business culture that values youthful brashness and irreverence, that sees “disruption” as the name of the game. And I value those things, too.

But, sitting in a crowd, and seeing and hearing the cheap and jealous (but spinelessly breathy) digs from the audience, presented as some kind of world-weary cynicism, told me too many people spent too much time focusing on the allure of the cool of the new.

I’ve done it too. I turn my nose up at Microsoft regularly – I guess we all do – despite the company practically defining my childhood and the world I’ll spend my working life in. But, you know, yuck, Microsoft, so uncool.

The speaker was from a company that you won’t read about in the tech blogs, because they’re not new, and they don’t have anything to do with your mobile phone. But he was from a company that’s worth $230 billion, well after it ceased to be a booming growth stock. So it’s a fair bet such a person might have something to say worth listening to.

But, if you let yourself get brainwashed into thinking success looks like a few blog posts about your exciting new online start-up and some retweets of your snark-driven insights at a tech conference, you’ll almost certainly miss it.

Because you know what’s really cool? The guy who has fallen flat on his face getting trying to get somewhere that turned out to be too hard on this occasion. And the guy building something that will last the test of time because it has a real business model with real revenues.

As I began in an educational vein, I should end with a university-style conclusion. I am not omniscient. I’m simply telling it as I see it.

This means you should take these columns with a pinch of salt. But that’s a good way to look at things. Salt adds flavour to your already vitamin and taste-enriched meal. Too much can ruin it. Not enough can feel bland. Here’s to metaphors.