Why Startups Are So Hard (And Why Big Visions Matter)

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By Mike Knapp

In 2009 two friends and I launched Shoes of Prey - an online custom shoe shop. We were full of excitement, but also quite apprehensive. After all, we had left our well paying jobs and really had no idea what we were doing - although only faintly aware of this at the time.

Back in 2009 having a “startup” was not too dissimilar from being voluntarily unemployed. It certainly appeared that way to our loved ones!

Over the next few years we made every mistake in the book. Hiring mistakes. Technology blunders. Focusing on the wrong thing for periods of time. Isn’t it a great tragedy that you gain experience precisely when you desperately need it the most?

One difficult thing about running a startup is that it’s quite similar to running a bigger company - only much more risky. And, as founders, you must fulfil every role, at least initially. Don’t like doing taxes? Too bad - you’re an amateur bookkeeper now! Have no idea about marketing? But it’s your job! The list is endless. Oh, and you don’t get paid. It took 3½ years before we drew a salary.

Slowly, some things softly came into focus; often only after our mentors kindly nudged us in the right direction. Some things still remain open problems.

Perhaps my biggest learning personally was how to hire and motivate smart people. Michael Fox and I had both worked at Google prior to Shoes of Prey, and Jodie Fox at an advertising agency. We had all taken for granted the machinery of a big company in attracting and managing talent. We eventually learned the best thing you can do when trying to motivate others is have a powerful vision of the future. As Simon Sinek says, “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

Elon Musk does this brilliantly at his company SpaceX. His vision is that one day humans will live on other planets. To reinforce this vision, there are two giant posters in the SpaceX lobby: one of Mars today - a red barren planet - and the other is Mars once it has been “terraformed” to look much like Earth today. That’s their goal. As far as simple but impactful corporate vision statements go, this one takes the cake!

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Poster in SpaceX Lobby

This is probably the most important lesson I took away from my time at Shoes of Prey: great organizations, large or very small, must try to realise a compelling vision of the future. Without that, all of their struggles will seem hollow.

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Mike Knapp trained as a lawyer and software engineer. After briefly entertaining a career in the law, he joined Google in 2005, moving between Sydney, San Francisco and Shanghai. In 2009 he left to co-found Shoes of Prey, where he focused on creating the frontend and backend technology. He also spent 3½ years in China overseeing the construction of the company’s 200-person factory. He left Shoes of Prey in early 2017 and now is an Entrepreneur in Residence at River City Labs in Brisbane.

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