Startup Lesson 7: Say it out loud: "Most startups fail!"

Over the past few months, I’ve met with a dozen or so entrepreneurs and job seekers/changers.  We generally talk about what they do (or did) up until today and what they want to do tomorrow.  When the conversation turns to what they’d really like to do, some of them are very sure they want to start their own business.  When we get to that point, I ask this question:

“How much runway do you have?”

Blank stare. Long pause.


In the startup world, “runway” means, loosely, “how long can you work for free?”  That’s a key element in any startup because, by definition, startups have no revenue for some amount of time. That means no salary for the founders.  Zero income. Nada. Nothing.  How long can you (and your family) live on that?

Before my first startup, back when things were still “gray & white” (how my kids refer to old movies) and “dial up internet” was still a thing in 1999, I had to do that math.  The company I was working for got acquired by FirstData, so we went from a really fun 35-person service shop to a teeny weeny division of Western Union. Not exactly “new tech”, very, very corporate, and the exact environment Barrett Brooks refers to in his latest blog post about Atlanta Tech Village.  I couldn’t wait to get out, but before I did, I had to check the math on how we’d pay the mortgage and, you know, eat.  Turns out I had a little over a year of “runway”, which, at the time, seemed like an eternity. “Surely we’ll be making money in 3-4 months!!” Pshaw.

Then I had to make the ultimate gut check: how does my wife feel about my quitting a phat-salaried cushy job with a 1.2 mile commute and incredible benefits to take a 100% gamble on this thing soon-to-be-called “wi-fi”?  So the day before I gave my 2 week notice to my boss, we sat down and talked.  That means I had to say those dreaded 4 words: “We need to talk.”  Now, my wife’s motto comes directly from Elaine Benes: “I’ll go, if I don’t have to talk.” So when I tell her that we need to talk, she knows it’s a big deal.

We talked. I explained to her what I wanted to do and the math involved.  Her response was epic, and it launched me into the startup world.  She said three words: “Go for it.”

What will your spouse and/or family say when you tell them you want to leave your steady, stable, salaried job to gamble everything on a startup?  Most startups fail!  Say that again. “Most startups fail.” Say it out loud. To your spouse. It changes everything. If you don’t have the support of the people who share your life, then your chances of success as an entrepreneur just plummeted, no matter how much “runway” you have.

Get your personal life in order before you quit your day job.

What do you think?