Do You Want to Build a Startup or a Business?

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Legit question.

A startup is not a business. It exists for a different reason.

A business exists to serve the long-term blended needs and desires of the founding team, the community for which it creates solutions, experiences and delights and, increasingly, the larger community and ecosystem in which it exists.

A startup, on the other hand, exists for one sole purpose – to prove or disprove the viability of an idea for a business and, if possible, do what’s necessary to evolve invalidated ideas into viable ones then build them into sustainable entities.

At this point, you’re likely scratching your head, saying “um, isn’t the latter just the first stage of the former?”

Yes, but….

The two stages are so different in terms of energy, purpose, talent, skills and vision that it’s not unusual for the team that’s drawn to the startup phase to be both disinterested in and under-qualified to be the same team that steers the ship through the next stage.

Not always. There are certainly exceptions. Individuals and teams who work diligently to evolve skill sets and develop equal passion for scaling, building out systems, processes, teams, org-charts and more. Behance founder and CEO, Scott Belsky, and his team are a great example. He is deeply committed to not only building his business but developing his team with the skills and mindset needed to thrive at every stage of his company’s journey.

But, I often wonder if, more often than not, the continued dominance of a founding team is more about ego blended with an inability to let go of the reigns and acknowledge what truly fuels them, rather than a genuine interest in and developed ability to move a venture through it’s next stage of life.

It’s critically important to get honest with yourself about what you’re looking for as an entrepreneur. Do you light up from the all-in, life-consuming rush of launching something from nothing, building the model, product, team and culture from the concept up? Do you get bored as soon as what you’ve built gets big enough to be stable? Are you at a point in your life where you’re willing and able to give up nearly everything in the name of a dream?

If so, you’re likely a startup junkie. Not saying that’s a good or bad thing (lots more on this in a future post). It’s simply an acknowledgment of what’s going to fuel and engage you at this point in your career and life. The rush of bringing something rapidly into existence, solving complex problems under insane time constraints, limited by “runway” or a rapidly exhausting bank account often filled with other peoples’ money. More commitment to getting from zero to handoff, exit or some other mid business-cycle metric than long-term development or connection to serving a specific community. All in the name of doing it again. And again. And again. Whether the company is there 10, 15 or 20 years from now isn’t so much your concern or motivation.

If you’re more about building out processes, massaging, evolving and tweaking. Systematizing, reinforcing and more discrete experimentation. If you have a deeply held long-term vision and focus and a sustained interest in investing in people and culture over time. If you want a real life that wraps around or even integrates into the way you earn your living. If you’re strongly connected to a specific community and want to build a company and career around serving that community on a level you can see committing to for the indefinite future. You still need to get through the startup phase, but for you, that’s more of a necessary evil on the road to being able to run a business, one you can’t imagine ever wanting to exit.

Why does all of this matter?

Because, a lot of people are walking around now claiming to have the Jones to be an entrepreneur, but having no clue what an entrepreneur really is or does. How brutal the different aspects and phases of startup and entrepreneurial life can be (this doesn’t have to be the case, btw, more on that in a future post, too), especially if you bring the wrong set of expectations and skills to the quest. And having little real understanding of the phases of entrepreneurship and which one they’re both more organically drawn to and equipped to excel at.

Startup entrepreneurs are often in it for the rush. The game and the challenge of bringing something as rapidly from concept to entity and then to exit. Then, it’s time to start anew. Sustained-vision entrepreneurs are in it for the long haul, looking to make the startup phase go as quickly, yet gently as possible in the name of building something sustainable that they see themselves being connected to for as long as possible.

And startups, as entities, are often more born out of a particular solution (though that often must change), while sustainable-vision businesses are more often born of a more mission-centric quest to serve a specific community with less connection to any specific product or solution.

As you think about your entrepreneurial future, especially if you’re in the early stages or about to dive in, take the time to reflect on what part of the process lights you up. What empties you out. And what you’re best equipped to handle or motivated to become equipped to handle. Owning this before you commit can save a lot of heartache and accelerate the success of both your personal journey and the venture you’re looking to join or build.

I’ll be writing a lot more about different elements of startups, sustained-vision business building, culture-creation and lifecycle and even, gulp, lifestyle-entrepreneurship over the next few months.

So, what about you?

If you are now or dream of becoming an entrepreneur, what approach fuels you most and why?

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18 responses

18 responses to “Do You Want to Build a Startup or a Business?”

  1. Sher says:

    I started 6.5 months ago with intentions of being in this for the long haul; for my future. There is no thrill in getting the business going, in fact much of it was as you wrote, “a necessary evil” (paperwork, ick!). Idea, design, create, present, feedback, tweet, repeat, is how it works for me.

    Thank you for a very relevant topic today! I have been wondering what all the fuss over the entrepreneur title was. Now I know 🙂

  2. Judi Knighr says:

    Great post. I started a psychiatric medical records software company back in the day. It was an idea a little before its time. We were doing pretty well. A financial guy came in to look us over and was impressed but he told me that at some point we woukd need a “real” CEO and I was miffed and somehat insulted. Four years later with 20 employees who needed managing and on our third software revision, I looked around and said ” where the hell is that Real CEO???? I found someone who was able to take the business to the next level in a way I could’t have ever done.

    It is important for us to recognize our strengths and weaknesses. I know I am a doer and not a manager. I can manage but I feel like I being eaten by piranhas. Not a good long term job for me.

  3. Mark says:

    “Ground zero” is where a bomb is dropped. Inauspicious at best. 🙂 I think the metaphor you’re looking for is “square one”.

    Sorry. Pet peeve.

  4. The problem with startups is that they are too risky. Build a business from scratch, fund your own “startup” with your existing money. That’s my opinion…

  5. Mark Furlong says:

    Great insights. I come from the church world and the same issues are faced there. Some people are great “starters”, some are great “builders” and a very few can do both. I enjoy creating new materials, products, etc., but I have a community I hope to serve for many years to come.

  6. Really interesting post Jonathan.

    In Internet Marketing, people aren’t thinking as far. They just want to “make money.”

    Preferably in large amounts by noon tomorrow.

    It’s this inability to delay the need for immediate gratification that is stopping them from building a real business.

    Great points.

  7. jami scholl says:

    Great article about the differences between start-up and business… being a newbie with My Edible Eden I made a lot of mistakes, and look back now in light of your article and think that it was start-up all the way although I didn’t think it at the time – urban ag has come a long way in 5 years! Now that I’e gained experience, with the creation of a new business I am concentrating on building a business, not working through the thought of “will this work”?

  8. Paul says:

    Interesting question. I’ve always approached things with the intent to provide long-term value. It seems like start-ups and house flippers get such a bad name. (And I’m not sure why…) That being said, I think we’ll stick with long-term value. Unless, of course, someone makes us a great offer 🙂

  9. Kathy says:

    You’ve described the differences between a startup environment and that of a small biz or corporation perfectly.

    I’ve spent my career working or consulting for startups. 20+ years as the right hand to various founders….and one very, very dull year at a Fortune 100 company. Despite the perks, higher pay etc., I was bored every minute in corporate America.

    So to add to your thoughts, I think it’s just as important that employees considering working for a startup understand and “light up” at the same part of the process as the founder. In a startup, it’s an “all-in, life-consuming rush” for the whole team. The ideal startup employee is one who is running just as fast as the founder, and who is just as addicted to the rush.

    Just as the two stages of business are different in terms of “energy, talent, skills and vision” so must the team that supports the founder be.

    Something to think about when hiring the team.

  10. Jason Hull says:

    Insight is often common sense masqueraded as revelation. This is one of those posts where after you read it, you realize that you’ve just had the author reveal to you what you probably knew all along but never sat down to think about it, and now that you’ve read it, you have the “a-ha! This makes SO MUCH sense!” moment.

    I’m an idea person. I like to come up with what I think are new ideas and new concepts – though there’s nothing said which probably hasn’t been said before – and throw them out there. I’m probably a third type which is even more in the infancy of building than the two that were described in the article: comes up with ideas, and hands them off to the startup person who then sees if they’re viable. Granted, my experience was ideate–>build–>sell, but in my ideal world, I’d be the one who fills the very top of the funnel.

    Is there a place in the world for the idea spawners?

  11. Jonathan, this post draws some excellent distinctions.

    One of the things I’m interested in is how innovation works within this frame … how large businesses (as you define them) can keep conscious of the opportunities available through start-up thinking.

    Perhaps there’s another post in there for you to publish – I’d love to read your thoughts on that!

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Peter, great point, and something I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking and a bit of writing and speaking on. Definitely more to come on that topic.

  12. Nice post. It’s quite a good explanation. I’m definitely not a start-up junkie. I couldn’t think of anything worse.

    I’m prepared to build my business slowly so one day I can be running it from anywhere in the world. But I want it to be my life. I want to run it forever.

  13. That’s a great distinction, although I don’t think people are always that cut and dry.

    I think we need to really define what the word entrepreneur means in this context.

    Is it someone who starts from scratch, gets a team together and then runs with the idea?

    In this case every entrepreneur is an adrenaline-junkie at one time of his or her life.

    As you point out though, after the launch much of the day to day process requires a different type of mindset and attention.

    I started, ran and sold some of the 4 businesses over the past 10 years. As much as the start, build-up and launch fuels know, I also love the feeling of extending the reach of a business and helping more and more people.

    Different pleasures surely, are they incompatible? I don’t think so.

  14. Kevin says:

    Terrific insight, Jonathan! So brief and clear! Thanks! I read a book a couple years ago that was really helpful to me in this regard: “Predictable Success,” by Les McKeown. He talks about how some people are addicted to the rush of the startup phase, and end up cratering because what they really wanted to create was something sustainable. It’s a mistake I’ve personally made over and over.

  15. Dee says:

    A really helpful piece; now I know why the challenges of a start up are so challenging for me, lol. I love building community, I like linking with like minded others–metrics bore me to tears! For me it’s all about connection and my vision extends many years into the future. Wow; so very helpful. Thanks!

  16. Clare Norman says:

    I recognise these traits in the corporate world too. Only the other day, I was coaching someone who had come to realize that the job he had once loved had now become a bit stale, because there was no longer any challenge in the stability of the situation. So it’s just as relevant in companies to reconize whether the role is the right fit for our strengths and passions. Thanks for the reminder Jonathan – I’ll be passing this article on to my coachee.