The myth of the startup garage
When I started college, the whole web was about 360 servers in September 1994. By December, it was in the tens of thousands. I can say this with a straight face, only because I was lucky enough to have good timing to get a front row seat to this explosion of the web. Hint: it’s called the Internet nowadays.
In the early days of the web, the first real-world newspaper which made it online was the San Jose Mercury News. By reading news via email, I was able to get an Associated Press feed on world news. A San Francisco take on everything going on in the world was mind blowing to my still-teenage mind.
As the dotcom era heated up, there were more and more fantastic stories which the media caught onto, usually along the same lines:
- 2-3 young guys
- a garage
- an idea
A few months later they were millionaires. A few years later they were billionaires. Unfortunately, as a student, I didn’t have a garage.
While the fantastic stories kept ringing in my head for years after the dotcom crash, I later realized the stories glossed over a few critical elements:
First of all, most of these early stage tech ventures fail. The ones who hit the news were not representative of the typical tech founder experience. That’s a bit more mundane. It’s much more likely for a tech venture where you’re creating something completely new with a new business model to fail, than setting up a restaurant on a busy corner. Certainly back when it cost millions to get good enough servers to scale the business.
Second of all, the press coverage doesn’t include what founders actually do, on a day to day basis. There’s just this predictable narrative leap from a garage to billions. For some reason, I eventually learned to question what was missing from that picture.
Third of all, it’s perfectly understandable that this story has become a stereotype based on media incentives. The media want to sell advertising. People love to read these kinds of romantic stories about changing the world and making billions in the process. Even people who have no interest in trying it themselves.
I’m sure that most of these stories were well researched and accurate. It’s just human nature filling in the gaps and distorting the overall picture (well at least that was true in my own case).
After reading the Lean Startup, I’d figured out what was missing. Experiments.
That’s what founders actually do, on a day-to- day basis. Printing up a stack of business cards and going networking to impress people you’re a founder? That makes you indistinguishable from everyone else with the same strategy.
If you want to refine an idea and turn it into a business, experiments will get you there. Real tech founders use the scientific method, meticulously testing their assumptions. It’s no coincidence that many of the first round of founders were computer scientists. They were trained to think like scientists, in addition to feeling comfortable with their word processor. Rigorous experiments were the hidden truth behind these tech star stories.
If you want to be running your own experiments, and want some help with getting started…give me a shout. I can help you construct your first experiments. Get advice on any experiment-related question you might have.
Grab a triangle audit or a copy of Your First Startup Experiment, my book on how to get from idea to your first step in the right direction as a founder.