Starting a business is ________

By Max Galka W’04/ENG’04, Founder of Metrocosm and Revaluate

What word best characterizes what it’s like to start a business?

Fun?  Rewarding?  Invaluable?

All of those things are entirely true. Starting a business has been one of the most enjoyable and rewarding experiences of my life.

But there is one adjective that is even more characteristic.

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Even Google agrees. Starting a business is really hard.

I wanted to share my thoughts about this topic because I think there is a general misunderstanding about what people really mean when they say this.

When I started my own business, I fully expected it to be hard. What I did not fully appreciate was why starting a business is so hard.

Other endeavors I had faced were difficult in the same way that running a marathon is difficult—hard to endure at times, but with a clear path to the finish line, and doable with enough persistence and grit.

In my experience, starting a business is much more like trying to find your way out of a labyrinth—persistence is important, but unless you really take the time to think through where you are going, you will just end up going in circles.

In that regard, it’s not the time commitment or personal sacrifices that make starting a business difficult. What’s uniquely hard about entrepreneurship is the ongoing series of dilemmas you face just trying to figure out what you’re supposed to do next.

If you decide to give entrepreneurship a shot, here are some of the dilemmas you will face.

Accomplishing tasks vs. setting priorities

One of the best parts of starting a business is that you get to wear so many different hats. When you get to be the marketer / strategist / developer / graphical designer, work is never boring.

The downside is that at any given time, you are faced with a never-ending list of tasks that you feel you should be working on. And it is up to you to determine which are important and which can be put aside.

When I am feeling overwhelmed with work, the last thing I want to do is spend time thinking through priorities. But not doing so can have big costs. In hindsight, jumping into projects without thinking them through first is one of the biggest mistakes I made early on. I wasted entire weeks working on product features that never even made it into the product.

My advice is that it is worth spending the time, a lot of time if necessary, to make sure you are working on the things that really matter.

Personal judgment vs. user feedback

The general wisdom in the startup world is that product development should be driven by user feedback rather than by the founders’ intuition about what the users want.

The concept was made famous by a book called The Lean Startup, which describes a system for running “validated learning” experiments and reworking the product based on the results.

The book is a great read. And in general, I am a believer in the concept. But in practice, it is not always practical or even possible to test every change before releasing it.

Determining when you should trust your assumptions and when you need to solicit feedback can be a real challenge.

Product vs. user acquisition

Every piece of early-stage startup advice I have ever read or heard stresses the importance of building a valuable product above all else. If people don’t want what you’re offering, you simply don’t have a business.

While that is completely true, I have seen people take this idea to the extreme, focusing on nothing but the product, ignoring user acquisition entirely. The commonly quoted lesson here is, “If you build it, they may not come.”

Ultimately, feedback from users is a key piece of building the product, so user acquisition cannot really even be separated from product development. The challenge is in determining how to divide the focus between them.

The signal vs. the noise

Entrepreneurship is more art than science. And if you ask five people for advice, you are likely to get five different answers.

In my experience, very few startup questions have a single right answer. And it is important to develop the intuition to distinguish what advice is right for your business and what you should ignore.

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Bio: Max is the founder of Metrocosm and cofounder of Revaluate. He graduated from Penn and M&T in 2004 with a Bachelor of Applied Science in Computer Science from Penn Engineering and a Bachelor of Science in Economics from Wharton with a concentration in Finance. In his spare time, Max loves to travel (especially in Spain, where his wife is from) and his favorite film is Back to the Future.