Being in a startup is one of the hardest things in the world. You’re in this very intricate relationship with several people (co-founders, first employees, customers, investors and advisors). Everyone’s emotions are involved. Everyone’s fates are tied together. It’s the most personal business to ever exist. It’s a team, it’s a group effort, everyone is pulling in the same direction. If everyone isn’t on the same page then you get nowhere.
To quote Ben Horowitz in his essay, The Struggle:
The Struggle is where greatness comes from.
I agree with that 100%.
Being in a startup is a grind. The tech industry is a grind, as I’ve said many times before. If you’re not prepared for the grind, get the hell out of here.
If you are in a startup, you’re responsible for more than yourself and your own happiness. Being selfish is not tolerable. You give up your rights to be selfish when you’re in a startup. I do so many things that I don’t want to do but know that I have to do them for the sake of the startup (but at the same time I have more fun that many can believe is possible). I’m not tooting my own horn here - I’m being honest. I will always bend over backwards for the people I work with and the startup we care so much for. Ask anyone.
Yesterday afternoon I met with two budding Berklee entrepreneurs who were excited to talk with me about their new idea for monetizing music. I’m not going to go into details because I know they aren’t ready for the conversation to go public. We talked about a variety of things from getting savvy with code to being open to sharing your ideas so you can receive feedback. The discussion turned to confidentiality and I explained why most people in the tech world avoid entrepreneurs that try to get them to sign an NDA. I thought this would be the first and last time I discussed non-disclosure agreements this week or maybe even this month.
Needless to say, I was taken aback when I learned that an entire class at Berklee College of Music had signed NDAs for another student’s startup earlier in the day. On top of that, the startup was barely past the idea phase - just some sketches in a notebook. This is bad. Really, really bad. It speaks to a lack of understanding by both Berklee and all students involved about the implications of an NDA.
NDAs: little good, much bad, very ugly
There is certainly an upside in guilting people into signing your NDA. If any of the signees had an idea like yours, or decide to do anything even remotely similar in the future, you can attempt to sue them and have a signed document to back your side of the story.
A non-disclosure agreement is armor for a person that irrationally believes someone else will steal their idea. It’s an attempt at protecting themselves against people that can execute better.
(Update 2/27 - to be fair, some entrepreneurs may not even realize this.)
The downsides for the entrepreneur asking someone to sign an NDA are numerous. Almost anyone who is in the tech business will immediately label you as a complete noob (yes, I just wrote noob) or someone that could be overly litigious and dangerous. Investors (VCs or angels) will almost always refuse to sign an NDA because they could very well have someone come in with the same idea as yours 5 minutes after you leave.
There is NO UPSIDE to signing an NDA, especially if you know nothing about the business to begin with. If you know nothing about the business, like the students in that Berklee classroom, you could be opening yourself up to all sorts of trouble. How do you know your notepad doesn’t have very similar sketches to what the entrepreneur asking you to sign an NDA is working on?
So why do people ask you to sign an NDA?
They could be scared someone will take their idea and make millions of dollars.
In reality, any idea is worth very little. Derek Sivers, founder of CD Baby and Berklee alum, writes that ideas are just a multiplier of execution. In fact, he believes a multi-million dollar idea with zero execution is worth $20. The reason these entrepreneurs are scared is because they know full well that as nontechnical people working in a technical space their chances of successfully executing on the idea are slim to none. There are certainly outliers, but a technical co-founder is incredibly vital to achieving a win. Even then, the vast majority of startups fail.
Your idea isn’t original
No, it really isn’t. Here’s a story from my time in elementary school:
A good friend of mine was an aspiring chef. He made a soup that everyone loved. It was tomato soup with mozzarella cheese and oregano. He called it pizza soup. One day, months or even years after he made his first pizza soup, we were getting food at our schools cafeteria and what do you think they were serving? That’s right, pizza soup. My friend freaked out. They had stolen his idea!
No, the lunch lady hadn’t stolen his idea. She didn’t even know he had the idea in the first place. There are over 300 million people in the United States alone. Chances are, hundreds of them had also thought up pizza soup before my friend had.
Jack Dorsey recently quoted author William Gibson who said, “the future has already arrived, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” There are likely people who have been working for months or even years on the idea you personally just came up with. Does that mean you should not follow through with your vision? It depends. Do you think you are the right person to bring your idea to market? Do you have what it takes to distribute this product?
NDAs in the classroom are a terrible idea
Perhaps Berklee College of Music is just entirely new to the concept of discussing technology and startups, but NDAs should really have no place in the classroom. Berklee students should be wiser than to just sign anything placed in front of them. Berklee Professors should know better than to bring legal documents into a classroom setting. What’s worse is that at least one student said they felt as if refusing to sign the NDA would prevent him or her from staying enrolled in the class (though this was never stated outright).
Stanford University is a technology/startup leader. Let’s see what they have to say with regard to NDAs in the classroom:
“NDAs are generally NOT permitted for class projects at Stanford. Students should not be asked to sign an NDA in order to participate in a class project, and companies should not provide any information to project-based classes if they are not willing to permit the information to be made public.” (link)
Berklee should take a note from Stanford, a school that should be looked to as an authority on these sorts of practices.
NDA… No Don’t Ask…
Non-disclosure agreements don’t belong in the classroom. In many circumstances they don’t even belong in tech startups. I can only hope that Berklee, the professors and students, will realize just how harmful NDAs can be to discourse, learning and innovation.
There they were, a classroom full of music business students who have heard time and time again how artists had been screwed by signing documents they did not understand. Had they just made the same mistake?
Let’s continue this discussion both online and in-person.
UPDATE (2/27/13): This post has continued to garner attention. Since it’s being linked to directly I think it is important that readers also look at the follow-up post titled Fallout that further explains why I posted this and what I hope to see happen going forward at all learning institutions.
My friend was excited. Excited enough that he would send a text knowing I was probably still in bed. His business idea, which he had thought would take a few years to become viable, was already picking up steam in the collective consciousness. There is nothing better than the wave arriving earlier than you had anticipated if you are prepared to hop up on your board and start surfing. He asked if someone would fund a young guy who had not finished college on a capital-intensive venture. I told him yes, but he would need killer advisors and mentors that had the experience that he lacked.
His response, quite typical of our generation, was, ”So pretty much I just have a shitload of networking to do?”
Nothing against my friend, but we have collectively become the networking generation. As a group we are constantly reaching out for the weakest connections and the ambition of breaking 500+ on LinkedIn. After being involved with startups and the music industry for a while now it has gotten a bit frustrating.
I texted back, “You need to build relationships. To me, networking always feels like flies jumping from one pile of shit to another.”
My friend laughed and agreed.
The value you can extract from a relationship is directly related to the amount of value you put in. Think about that person you are meeting for the first time as a human being, not just a pile of flesh you can pitch your startup to. The entire entrepreneurial community thrives on meaningful relationships. Let’s become the relationship generation.
The great grow rapidly. They find a brilliant idea and execute on it. They iterate and build intelligently. They are wildly ambitious with their idea but they are reigned-in when it comes to shipping new features.
The terrible die slowly. They drag it out. They hold onto an idea that either they cannot execute well or is just not viable.
Only the good die fast. They rapidly test out a radical idea. If it doesn’t work they are running back to the drawing board; figuring out how to pivot or if they should completely change their product.
There is nothing wrong with failure. The vast majority of startups do. Just try to fail quickly.
When looking at what makes someone successful, writer Malcolm Gladwell states in his book Outliers that the key to mastering any skill is a dedication to practicing it. Specifically, Gladwell believes that it takes about 10,000 hours to reach mastery.
Let’s put that into perspective. I’m 22 years old and have been alive 8,329 days. I would need to have have walked an average of 72 minutes every day (since birth!) to have “mastered” the skill of walking. I’m not certain but I may still be on my way.
But in all seriousness, this means that doing something for an hour a day for over two decades will not be enough for you to reach the point of mastery. You need to let your passion consume you. You need to wake up in the morning and begin painting then not stand up until much later only to realize you’ve missed breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Recently Macklemore has inspired me more than any other artist. His song Ten Thousand Hours is inspired by Malcolm Gladwell and this theory.
“The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint
The greats were great cause they paint a lot”
Passion is the spark that drives people to become masters of their art.
People mean well when they get you presents but often you know what gifts are more practical than they do. Here’s a list of the top ten things to give yourself to improve your knowledge of entrepreneurship, investing, and technology. Though targeted at entrepreneurs, I feel like much of this list would be very useful for people pursuing music careers either solo or with a band.
- The Founder’s Dilemmas: Anticipating and Avoiding the Pitfalls That Can Sink a Startup: this is one of those books that changes the way you think about starting a company and who you co-found with. I suggest this for musicians because you will likely face the same issues that founders of tech startups face. Bands are the leanest of startups and things can get ugly or painful quickly.
- Treehouse subscription: Have you ever wanted to build an app? How about build a website for your business or band? Stop wasting your time messing around with templates that look incredibly derivative and learn how to do it yourself. Treehouse has some of the best instructional videos I’ve seen online. There is student pricing available if you email them a recent transcript.
- The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly?: Seth Godin’s latest book is all about treating your work like an artform. Not out yet but his track record guarantees this will be brilliant.
- Mastering the VC Game: Written by Jeffrey Bussgang of Boston’s Flybridge Capital, this is a fascinating look at the world of Venture Capital. Jeff has been on both sides of the entrepreneurial equation so he can explain VCs in a way that entrepreneurs will understand. This is also covers some truly interesting Boston startup history that younger entrepreneurs may not be familiar with.
- Do More Faster: TechStars Lessons to Accelerate Your Startup: This is as much a book about fast iteration as it is an insight into the culture and rapid prototyping of TechStars, a premier startup accelerator that has locations across the country.
- The Lean Startup: This is the book that will change the way you think about business and developing ideas. It’s another book for startups that I cannot recommend enough to bands.
- The Play Ethic: Pat Kane’s revelatory book on the power of play in ideation and business. Sadly it’s only available digitally for Kindle or used (and pretty pricey for a physical copy since it’s so popular).
- The Dharma of Capitalism: A Guide to Mindful Decision-Making in the Business of Life: I read this book when I was studying meditation. It’s a very interesting take on how we make decisions and how sometimes things that on the surface appear to be simple actually have greater ramifications than we had imagined.
- Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In: My friend Amy Mantis suggested this book to me after hearing good things. My pile of books to read is stacked pretty high but I have added it to my list. I feel those that don’t think of themselves as “business people” (engineers, musicians, etc) would do themselves a great service by reading this.
- Absolute Beginner’s Guide to C (2nd Edition): I’m taking the Harvard’s edx course on Computer Science and this is the textbook they suggested we get to follow along with the lectures. Author Greg Perry assumes no prior knowledge and does an incredible job of making the C language very accessible. Python and Ruby are all the rage but if you want to learn C this is the book for you.
As Ringo says, “it don’t come easy.” The Beatles are a great example. They played at bars for hours and hours every night and then went home and played even more.
There’s no, “I’m trying to become a rock and roll star in my spare time.” The same applies for building a company. How can you expect other people like the drummer in the band or co-founder of your company to devote their time if you don’t do the same?
College is a place for people to dabble in and experiment with many topics that interest them. Few people find something that they want to spend every moment thinking about or working on but those that do must seek out others like them. They should not expect the average college student to be capable of focusing on one project.
The ones that really don’t want college to distract them from their passions drop out or take time off (I did the latter). I’m not advocating either option unless you feel compelled to make that decision on your own. If you do take a break or drop out you had better focus on what you were supposedly putting your institutional education on hold for.
No, it don’t come easy, but if you love what you do you should savor every moment.
I don’t believe in luck. I believe that skill, hard work, and putting yourself in the right place (as opposed to, “being in the right place at the right time”) are just three of the variables to a formula that many people define as “luck.”
“Luck” is a word used by people who don’t wish to over-analyze their success.
It is used as an excuse by those that fail as a way of explaining why someone else succeeded.
You can find great success following a trend or leeching onto a fad. You could make millions of dollars and maybe even solve some problems that people are currently experiencing.
What you will not do is change something that is fundamentally broken or build something entirely new.
Never follow the leader. If you do this you will end up where they do but you will be too late. You will be left to build around their idea. There is nothing inherently wrong with that but I believe most entrepreneurs want to build something new.
There are options:
- Revisit ideas that have failed for others. There may have been a great demand but the execution was so poor that they did not solve the problem. Facebook was not the first social network.
- Look at patterns and history. Guess what direction the leaders may eventually head in and get there before they do.
- Find something that has only just become possible and be the first person to try it. Since technology evolves so rapidly, things that were impossible just a year or two ago may now be feasible.
The dreaded question.
It’s open ended so you have no way of telling what “huge” actually means. The magnitude of the to-be-named favor can vary tremendously.
It could mean anything from watching a dog for the day to someone asking you to be an accessory to a crime.
The question is almost a universally terrible one to ask. It is requiring commitment before the actual request is presented.
It can feel like a trap. While it is not meant that way by everyone that employs the phrase I’m sure anyone reading this can remember a time where they accidentally committed to something they did not feel comfortable about.
Be outright with your needs and requests. People will give you the same response and they will not feel as awkward when they need to say no.