The Startup Lie
Behind the glitz of the startup life
Startups are all-consuming. It’s not a glossy, unicorn-filled dreamland that Silicon Valley wants you to believe. It will take over your life to a degree that you can’t imagine. And if you succeed - it will take over your life for a very long time - maybe the rest of your working life.
You might look at demigods like Musk or Bezos and think, “damn, that’s the life!”. But let’s unpack that - they didn’t wake up at a Mount Everest of cash. These guys, and many of them, climbed, often with their nails broken and bleeding, through a relentless storm of challenges. And the thing is - they can’t even complain about it.
If you are successful, you can’t show weakness. You get zero, sometimes less than zero, sympathy for complaining. You are the father of the household, and rule number one of being a leader is that you can’t never, ever, show weakness (many may disagree, but I disagree with them). Your employees, customers, and investors all look at you for stability and strength - and it must flow out of you and through you. Your competitors and journalists are ready to pounce at any sign of weakness - and you can’t ever give them that. But you alone - and a few close members of your team - know the actual health of your company- your dysfunctional culture, your bank balance, your runway, your angry and disappointed customers, your legal challenges.
Let’s debunk a myth - startup founders are swimming with money. No. In the early days, you don’t have any money. So you are spending out of pocket. When work becomes too much you need to make a hire - and you need to pay someone else's salary too. You need to buy devices, pay your AWS bills, and pay for supplies and legal costs. More likely than not - you are dipping into your savings.
Do you think raising money makes the stress go away? Nope. Sure - now you can pay yourself a salary, but every dollar you raise comes after you have made a promise to investors. The promise to grow the pile. So you can’t give yourself absurd salaries - and sometimes you have to pay yourself less than other, experienced, talent you want to hire.
At Pathao - I did both. When the company started and investor money wasn’t coming in on time, I had to spend my entire life savings just to sustain the business. Later, when the company went through tough times, during Covid when money wasn’t coming in, there was a better part of a year that I went without taking a dime out of the business, even though I had to pay out salaries for everyone else.
Do you think you will have more time, or, hilariously, work-life balance? Forget about it. If you are dreaming of leisurely brunches and weekends in Cox Bazaar, think again. You are the boss, sure - but that means you have a responsibility to your employees, investors and customers. Your pleasure comes last. Founders are married to their startups, for better or worse, in sickness and health. And trust me, there's a lot of sickness—burnouts, anxiety, the works.
What about equity? It’s a valuation game after all, right? Err, not as much. Even if your paper net worth can be in millions of dollars, after liquidation preferences, earn-out clauses, and taxes - you will find that many founders will be lucky to clear six figures. And that is if you are lucky. Besides - how many startups do you know that had an exit?
So, why do people do it? My short answer - it’s a mental illness. It's a burning, almost masochistic desire to solve a problem. It's seeing a gap and having the audacity to say, "I can fill that." It's a blend of ego, ambition, and a dash of insanity.
This burning desire to create something, to leave a legacy, to solve a problem - is what keeps a startup founder going through the volatility, lost friendships and personal sacrifices.
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The startup world isn't for everyone. It's a high-stakes poker game where the buy-in is your time, your energy, and often your sanity. But for those who play their cards right, and with a bit of luck, the payoff can be monumental. Just remember: it's not all rainbows and unicorns. Most of the time, it's blood, sweat, and tears.
Crunch the numbers:
You're at a fork in the road: Stay in your cozy gig with a 50% chance of a $20K bump or roll the dice on a startup and make a million dollars.
But let’s not kid ourselves - both paths are a gamble. You can drop $100k in your startup dream, but that can go up in smoke - or you have a 10% chance of making $1m.
How do we cut through the BS and make a call? Expected value. Multiply the potential cash of each scenario by its odds, and sum it up.
Your Expected Value from doing a startup = (-$100k * 90%) + ($1m * 10%) = $10k
Your Expected Value from staying at your job = ($20k * 50%) + (0 * 50%) = $10k
Unless you're betting your startup's odds are north of 10%, the spreadsheet says: think twice.