Dead Unicorns Society

Yum! Unicorn guts!

“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” — Robin Williams. Dead Poets Society.

“There’s a time for daring and there’s a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.” — Robin Williams. Dead Poets Society.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” — Samuel Beckett. Westward Ho.

I was lucky enough to retire five years ago, just before turning 52, in full health and (presumably) full control of my faculties. Not a week has gone by since without someone reminding me that it’s “too early” for me to retire.

Friends, family, and colleagues have asked time and again: “What next?” I’ve advised a few startups in the interim but I’ve also spent a bit of time thinking about what I’d do next if I had a clean sheet of paper.

In each case, so far, I’ve spent a few weeks or months working on the idea before abandoning it, either because I found a fatal flaw in my logic or because I couldn’t wrap my head around a specific issue or because the idea seemed either too small to be worthwhile or too large to be achievable given current state of the art. But in each case, I’ve also taken the time to write down my thoughts in detail as I went along.

Let’s be honest: Startups are hard! The best take a decade or more to build. If I start one now, I’d probably still be at it at age seventy. Is that what I really want? Is the idea strong enough that I can sell it to others, hire hundreds of people, spend a decade or more in meetings, manage teams, talk to customers, sit up in bed at 3:00 am answering emails, give industry or media interviews, travel the globe on business trip instead of playing with my grandkids, etc.? Is the idea that good, that unique, that differentiated? But that’s just the first step. The idea alone, as anyone will tell you, is almost never good enough to guarantee success.

If you’re a young entrepreneur out there, don’t fool yourself. Startups are hard work — for a decade or more. You better be serious if you’re going to start one. A good idea just isn’t good enough in this day and age when a lot of smart people are pursuing similar and overlapping missions.

Literally everything, every decision, matters in the life of a startup. The decisions you make on architecture and APIs, security and cloud implementation, continuous delivery and customer support, partner relationship management and project planning, recruiting and retention, hiring and firing, funding and supply chain, office space and … I can keep going but you get the idea. Every decision matters.

I’ve been there. But do I really want to do it again? When I’m 65? And do I want to pull hundreds of other people into it? It better be a damn good idea. So far, none of the ideas I’ve pursued meet the bar. I’m still noodling on some big ideas but they’re nowhere near baked enough to share broadly.

Your calculus may be different. Your mileage will vary. Ask yourself every day: Do I believe the company mission? Does it withstand scrutiny? Ask yourself not just “How deluded am I?” but also “Can I get others to believe in my reality distortion field for extended periods of time?” Should I upend the lives of hundreds of people to build this thing I thought up? Can I bend the arc of the universe in my favor and create not just a company but a culture and an ecosystem, a web presence and a corporate identity, HR guidelines and sales quotas, social media presence and …

Startups are hard. Great startups are really hard! You need to get all those things (and more) right in order to be successful.

I don’t think my time has been wasted working on these ideas and then abandoning them when it no longer made sense nor do I think any of these are fundamentally flawed. I enjoy coming up with new ideas and I enjoy even more writing them down as I think through them.

Details matter,” as I once opined in a blog post. It’s so easy to get excited about a cool idea; it’s so much harder to actually do the legwork and convince yourself (and others) that it’s not just achievable but also worthwhile and unique, that it has a legitimate path to market, that it has sustainable differentiation, that it has unique APIs, that your enterprise sales strategy will work, or whatever your magic sauce happens to be.

To be honest, the “unicorns” in the title is a misnomer, given that they never got off the ground; but the title is catchier than “Stillborn Startup Society” so I’ll stick with it.

My documents can’t exactly be called “business plans.” You’ll find no sales projections, total addressable market calculations, or supply chain logistics in them. Instead, they tend to identify a problem space and then lay out my approach to addressing it. Given that I have an engineering background, most of the content revolves around technology, potential implementation, and strategy but they cover a multitude of other topics as well.

At best, I think of them as “six pagers” (a la Amazon) that I would ask of anyone wishing to start a new company. My main advice to future entrepreneurs is this: Do you have such a six pager for your startup? If not, why not? That tells me you probably haven’t spent enough time thinking about it. Come back when you have. Despite the ridiculously cheap money available in Silicon Valley and across the globe today, startup plans written on a napkin are no longer viable. Nor are bullet points in a slide deck, whether they’re presented on paper, as a PDF file, or even scrolling smoothly across cool background graphics on your mobile-friendly website.

The market out there is too competitive. The information superhighway is littered with the roadkill of startups based on great ideas that just didn’t cut it. Everything matters in the life of a startup. If you haven’t thought through the implications of your idea in detail and have, at best, a slide deck to share, you’re probably wasting your own time as well as mine.

If you have a doc to share, I’d love to read it and give you feedback. But please don’t send me slides and don’t send me to your cool website. I banned slides from my meetings late in my career. I still think it was the best decision I ever made. Cogent human thought cannot be communicated in bullet points.

If your company has been around for a while, having such a document is even more vital. As the corporation grows, you want to be able to hand new employees a concise document that describes the company ethos, creation myth, strategy, and execution plan: Here’s all I was thinking at the time. Here’s why I started this company. Here’s what we’re trying to accomplish and how we’re going to do it. Here’s why we’ll have sustainable differentiation in the marketplace for years to come. Here’s what I’m worried about and here are all the things I haven’t figured out yet.

And please don’t point me to an old document written by the founder five years ago before the company went through two pivots and a cyber attack. This needs to be a living document.

If you are serious about spending the next decade of your life, 24x7, on this startup idea of yours, you should be able to find the time to write a “six pager” about it. You owe it to yourself. You owe it to everyone you ever hire.

“Lester Siegel: You don’t have a better bad idea than this?
Tony Mendez: This is the best bad idea we have, sir. So far.”
- Alan Arkin and Ben Affleck. Argo.

I’ve shared some of my six-pagers with friends and colleagues and received mostly positive feedback; but that’s not good enough. It’s easy for someone to give the equivalent of a “thumbs up” to an idea presented vaguely on a slide or in a document and then go back to their day job; it’s quite another to build a company from scratch. Slides make it far too easy to “fudge” facts, to hide uncomfortable questions under the rug. Six-pagers, at least, offer plenty of opportunity for introspection.

A bad idea is a bad idea regardless of whether you present it in a slide deck or in an elevator pitch or in a six page document. And a good idea is a good one regardless of the format it’s presented in. It’s just that sentences and paragraphs force you to work harder, to ask the hard questions and, hopefully, to give the honest answers. Slides don’t. I’d rather pull the plug now (fail fast in software parlance) than have the rug pulled out from under me next year because I didn’t take the time to think through things carefully.

A document riddled with questions is actually a good thing. It shows the areas you’ve thought about and in which you need help. A slide deck, by comparison, asserts supremacy in all fields of a business (or worse, scientific endeavour) through its categorical demand for brevity. Problem? What problem? We haven’t even thought about that. It’s just a bullet point on our strategy deck. Make sure you get marketing to take those bullet points and create a cool website. We need to rebrand our image and appeal to next gen developers.

So what am I saying? Don’t do startups? No, I’m just saying think through it. Thoroughly. And ask the hard questions; because if you don’t, someone else will… when you’re least prepared for them. More and more these days, you also need to ask yourself: “Is is moral? Is it ethical, what I’m proposing here? Can it be abused by governments or hackers to perform surveillance on people?”

In my case, I always end up by adding a short postmortem to the document explaining why I decided not to proceed. I hope there’s value to others in reading my thoughts in the future. If the picture at the top of this post is any indication, dissecting dead unicorns can lead to delicious outcomes! Perhaps someone will pick up the pieces, address the issues I couldn’t solve, and proceed with a better resulting idea.

Here’s the thing, though. I find the most common reason I end up killing my own startup ideas is that I realize, in one way or another, they can be subverted to spy on the populace, either by governments or by hackers or by big tech or by all three. I couldn’t be a part of that, ever. Regardless of how cool a gadget or service I’m offering, how large a market cap I create, or how big a social media following I have.

In my drive to define a cool new market or product, time and again, I’ve ended up depending on the collection of PII (Personally Identifiable Information) from customers. Most new tech companies these days end up doing that; that’s why we call it the “information age.” Information is valuable and can be monetized in myriad ways; so in our push for ever more revenues, in our insatiable appetite for data, we end up impinging more and more upon the privacy of our customers. Unfortunately, sooner or later, these same tools can and do get weaponized by governments and hijacked by hackers for surveillance purposes. I don’t want to add to that problem, ever, even with the best of intentions. Privacy matters. Plain and simple. Case closed. Startup dissolved. Move on. Nothing to see here; it’s just another dead unicorn.

I’ve deleted all my social media accounts and now depend exclusively on the kindness of strangers to pass the word around about my blog posts. Please share this post on social media if you liked it. Thanks.

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Former {CTO at VMware, VP at Microsoft, SVP at Cisco, Head of Eng & Cloud Ops at Cloudflare}. Recovering distance runner, avid cyclist, newly minted grandpa.

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Ben Fathi

Ben Fathi

Former {CTO at VMware, VP at Microsoft, SVP at Cisco, Head of Eng & Cloud Ops at Cloudflare}. Recovering distance runner, avid cyclist, newly minted grandpa.

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