The Way to Win the Startup Game is Not to Play It

I won the startup game by opting out of it.  Instead, I focused on my own business and stopped worrying about what everyone else was doing.

November 10th, 2018   |    By: Wil Schroter    |    Tags: Advisors, Mentorship & Coaching

I think I’ve won the startup game. No, I didn’t sell my company for a billion dollars. I didn’t raise at a unicorn valuation. I’m not headlining TechCrunch Disrupt.

I won because I decided to not give a shit about any of that. I opted out. I focused on my own business and stopped worrying about what everyone else was doing.

It was the most life changing thing I ever did. And, now I’m hoping you join me.

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I GREW UP WHEN I SHUT DOWN

My victory didn’t come from what I did – it came from what I stopped doing.

•    I stopped paying attention to what other people posted on social media.
•    I stopped worrying about what was reported in startup news.
•    I stopped comparing my success to how my friends were doing.
•    I stopped trying to sell people at cocktail parties on why my startup mattered.
•    I totally ignored my competition.

It’s amazing what happens when you cut out all of the things that buy you nothing and instead focus on the things that actually matter.

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 Re-Allocating Focus

I had this theory years ago that there was some amount of time that I had invested in worrying about my “startup success”, and that if I could re-allocate that time into something more useful (literally anything) that I’d sort of find this treasure trove of both happiness and focus.

That theory proved to be 1,000% true. Maybe more.

What was interesting wasn’t that I freed up some extra time by not checking social media, taking meetings and all the other senseless BS. It wasn’t costing me that much time to begin with. It wasn’t a time savings, it was a focus savings.

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Retaining Focus

Think of your focus like water in a bucket. Every time you distract yourself with some silly startup success act you poke a tiny hole in that bucket. You lose a tiny bit of focus. Now if you do that constantly, over a long enough period of time, all of those tiny holes start to let all of the water gush out. That was my focus.

I made a ton of amateur mistakes. I would have a coffee with a Venture Capitalist and we’d talk about a startup I was working on. He’d make some comment about how my startup would run into a problem as he saw it. I’d then start worrying about that problem. I’d lose focus.

Or, I’d be at a dinner party among Founders. I’d listen to another Founder tell me he just raised money at a $100 million valuation. I’d start wondering if I could raise at that valuation, and then spend the next day running cycles on what my investor deck might look like.

Or, I’d read a story of how some company just sold for a billion dollars. I’d start wondering what I needed to do – to change tomorrow – to get that kind of outcome.

All of these things were not only a giant waste of my time, they were a waste of a far more precious commodity – my focus. They took my eye off the ball from what actually mattered, which ironically is what prevented me from getting the very startup success I was worried about.

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Opting Out

A few years back, right as I was starting to build Startups.co, I looked back on all the silly stuff I was worried about and decided to test my experiment. I put all of my focus into what I was doing, and tuned out 99% what other people were doing. I reserved 1% because I’m not a total Luddite.

I stopped going to conferences. I stopped taking tons of meetings. I only asked my Founder friends about how their lives were going, not their startups (side note: apparently I was one of very few people who ever asked them that question).

I literally pulled the plug on anything that would drag me back into that startup-hipster abyss.

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 Changing Metrics

As important as what I opted out of was what I re-aligned with. My personal metrics for success were all wrong.

I thought that to “win” at the startup game I had to make as much money as possible. I thought that I had to have as big of a startup as possible. I thought I had to get as much press and adoration as possible. I thought when you have all those things, there is some “life prize” you get.

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You know what prize you get? Misery.

Every single Founder I met that had “crushed it” from any of the metrics you’d describe was miserable. Either they sold their soul to get there, or when they became successful they didn’t know how to enjoy it.

So I scrapped my playbook of what “startup success” was and I created a new one. I used metrics like “Do I have to answer to someone else?” and “Can I get as much time with my family as I can?”

I looked at the ROI of everything. I asked “If I take on this next risk, and I make more money, what specifically will that buy me that I don’t have now?” I stopped making investments in amorphous goals like “Make so much money.” (which ironically lead me to making more money.)

I distilled all of my personal metrics into things that were tangible and were directly related to having as much actual happiness as possible – not as much success as possible. It turns out the two aren’t nearly as linked as we might guess.

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Did it Work?

Short answer? Hell yes!  

I became 100x happier. My business grew 10x faster. I all of a sudden appreciated what I had so much more than ever before. Every opportunity to grow in our business was a true accomplishment, not a comparison to whether someone else appeared to have a bigger accomplishment.

My wife immediately noticed how much less anxious I was. My Founder friends would say things like “Did you just have some big exit? You seem like you’ve just won at something.” People started to comment that I looked younger than before. I mean, you only need so many data points and comments before you start to realize you’re onto something.

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Startups Good. External Validation Bad.

I think we all know that “Comparison Kills Joy” (Thank you Slack + Brene Brown for reminding me every day) but truly opting out of the startup game is harder than most people, especially those who aren’t Founders, tend to realize.

What I’ve learned is that you can’t win this game. No matter what you do, there will always be someone else who does more. There will always be another Mark Zuckerberg. And there will be a Mark Zuckerberg that replaces (and does better) than this Mark Zuckerberg. No matter what you do, if you use external competition to validate your own happiness, you lose.

If you really want to win the cocktail party startup game (where we all sit around and size each other up while we pretend we’re not) – opt out. I’m not saying don’t go to the party, I’m saying don’t play the game. Be the one person that talks about anything other than startups. Brag about how much you’re actually enjoying your life because you don’t play the startup game. Trust me, you’ll be a beacon of light to all of those that are consumed by it.

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Take a Stand

What’s great about all of this is that it’s entirely up to you to change and you can do it right now.

Think about all the torturous things you’ve done to yourself in the last week alone and make a list of a few things you’re just going to stop doing. Give it a week, or even a month, and watch how so much of your life changes as you simply cut out the stuff that made you so anxious to begin with.

Today, you can win the startup game.

You don’t need to have some huge success or giant exit.

All you have to do is stop playing.


About the Author

Wil Schroter

Wil Schroter is the Founder + CEO @ Startups.com, a startup platform that includes BizplanClarity, Fundable, Launchrock, and Zirtual. He started his first company at age 19 which grew to over $700 million in billings within 5 years (despite his involvement). After that he launched 8 more companies, the last 3 venture backed, to refine his learning of what not to do. He's a seasoned expert at starting companies and a total amateur at everything else.

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