I read a lot of Hacker News and it always strikes how big the numbers are in other people’s blog posts. When people write about a big exit on HN, they talk about $100M not $500,000.
When I was in college, and especially when I was running my first startup, reading those articles made me feel like a failure. From what I could tell, the world was populated exclusively by companies “struggling” to break $10M in yearly sales, and founders learning how to manage similarly “modest” liquidity events.
Now that I’ve been blogging for a few years, I can say from experience that most of those numbers are bogus. Survivorship bias aside, bloggers suffer from what I like to call Hypothetical Number Inflation.
When I write about a topic, I want to make a point, and the point is very rarely to be realistic about ordinary business metrics. I might want to prove that the relationship between effort and reward is correlative not causative, or that bootstrapping your first business makes sense. These are opinions that I’ve thought through and believe, but it helps to rally some ballpark numbers to make the case.
And therein lies the problem: in the course of arguing a point, it behooves me as a writer to push my numbers to the logical extreme to avoid losing my readers to unrelated quantitative niggling.
If I want to provide an example of a successful business in a blog post, I want the example to be unequivocal. If I choose a number that’s too low, the effect is like Dr. Evil asking for 1 MILLION dollars, readers stop and think “wait a minute, $1,000,000 isn’t successful to me.” When that happens, I lose that reader before they hear the entirety of my argument. This is especially necessary when making a complex or contentious point.
Since the HN crowd is so affluent (or at least says that it’s affluent), writers that want to be taken seriously need to choose hypothetical numbers that boggle the mind and leave no doubt as to as to the writer’s intent.
So, if you get frustrated when you read authors talking about “small” exists in the mid-8 figures or “low” executive compensation in the high 7 figures, remember that these numbers don’t represent the median, but the extreme. Better yet, decide for yourself how many zeros constitute success or failure and ignore writers like me.
A few weeks back I was watching The Queen of Versailles, which is an independent documentary about billionaire timeshare mogul David Siegel and his quest to build the largest house in America. At the beginning of the movie, the director interviews Siegel about how Westgate Resorts got it’s start. He talked about how he founded the company when he was young and naive, worked like hell, and managed to grow the company to billions in sales. What struck me about his description was how similar it is to the way I describe working on my first startup, with one critical difference: Skritter is a tiny bit less less profitable.
This got me thinking about the nature of effort vs reward. I think it’s a very common misconception among entrepreneurs that the harder you work, the more successful you become. This workaholic mentality causes people to sideline important aspects of their lives to maximize a perceived chance to make it big. I firmly believe that effort and reward are correlated. If your goal is to become a millionaire, you are far more likely to reach your goal working very hard on a bunch of ventures than if you stay at a job that allows you to relax and coast. The age old motto “God helps those that help themselves,” seems true.
But the the amount of reward you enjoy for your effort is randomly distributed. If it weren’t, David Siegel of Westgate fame would have had to work a thousand times harder/longer than someone whose startup makes $1M/yr. Since that clearly isn’t possible in a normal human lifespan, I’m forced to conclude that there is a big component of luck involved in the rewards anyone reaps from their efforts. Having a deep understanding of that fact is important because it helps workaholics like me from over-investing in work. The truth is that I probably stand about the same chance of retiring early from my new startup whether I pace myself or work 100 hour weeks. Effort is important for success, but marginal effort is just that, and it seems a horrible waste to labor under the delusion that another few hours of work will be the difference between a decent living and early retirement.