Startups Ain’t Always Pretty (and that’s Normal)

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Caterina Fake is leaving Hunch. Or something like that. (A brief overview is on Quora.

Last night, as I was reflecting on a contentious debate we’d had during the day (technically about server migrations, actually about pent up interpersonal frustrations), and after a fleeting moment of panic, it occurred to me how common this kind of shit really is.

It’s easy to lionize people, to paint your heroes––in your mind––with the magical dust of immortality and––abetted by the echo chamber that is the web––forget their actual humanity. Humanity that is sometimes flawed, sometimes frail. When you compare your very real, not-so-adequate-today self to the built up, pedestalized image of someone else, you’ll always come up short.

Which brings me to Chris Dixon, the celebrity entrepreneur/VC. We entrepreneurs who cut their teeth on the east coast in this latest wave of startups have come to lionize the man and hold him up as something of an idol. The truth? Cool guy. Very smart. Excellent writer. Already built up one company and sold it. But the man’s still human. Strip away the marketing and he’s still playin’ the game, just like the rest of us.

His current venture, Hunch, hasn’t really taken off, despite having raised nearly $20mil in venture capital from the top names in the biz and having lined up an all star team of technical geniuses. His co-founder Caterina just bailed, or is in the process of maybe-kinda-sorta-not-really doing so. Business Insider says they had a personal falling out, but that’s not confirmed.

And Hunch, well, Hunch is cool and “interesting” from a technology perspective, but I haven’t quite figured out how it solves an actual problem or need. I think I used it once, maybe, 6 months ago. No one on my team uses it and no one I know actively uses or has talked about it. From all appearances, the product seems to be “a vitamin, not a painkiller,” and more of a feature than a product.

Not saying they’re doomed, but I am saying they’re not a clear success just yet. ‘Product-market fit’ is still an aspiration, not a reality.

Sound familiar, maybe like 99% of every startup you’ve ever met, no?

Now, I’m not saying this to knock Dixon or Hunch, but to point out a larger truth that I think is easy to overlook amidst all the adulation & hype: CELEBRITIES ARE HUMAN. COMPANIES––NO MATTER HOW ‘HOT’––ARE RUN BY HUMANS. Humans that can fuck up and piss each other off and fall flat on their face. Humans like us…just sometimes with more money or buzz or prestige.

As a founder, it’s easy to come up short when you compare yourself to an illusory ideal. But that’s not reality. No one has a perfect track record. Businesses are run by humans. A startup is a human institution. While a good CEO can hide the warts, the truth is rarely as pretty or elegant as the narrative pedaled to the press.

And so, when you’re in the struggle and you want to kill your co-founder(s) and you haven’t nailed product-market fit and you wonder why you ever thought you could succeed in the first place, remember: That’s what being the man in the arena is all about. This kind of shit is normal. Hell, not even the great Chris Dixon is immune.

Only in hindsight will people––yourself included––romanticize the struggle, say your success was always assured, and imbue the affair with shimmers of glory.

11 Comments

  1. James November 7, 2010 at 5:29 am #

    I think the visionaries have the passion and it’s so strong they overshoot too often and it sets them back a while, keeping with them is pretty important because the good ones, will bounce back.

  2. Bill Clark November 7, 2010 at 6:22 am #

    Hunch

    • Matt Mireles November 7, 2010 at 9:35 am #

      RE: Hunch. Those seem like decent hypotheses. Dunno if reality has caught up, however.

    • Marc Love November 9, 2010 at 6:38 am #

      I don’t think Matt was saying that Hunch wasn’t valuable. The predictive models certainly are impressive. But that, on its own, is not a product. It’s a piece — a feature — of something else. Hunch either has to build something useful around it that makes me (or some other regular users) want to use it on a regular basis, or they need to sell Hunch to a company that will integrate it into their existing product.

  3. Anthony Franco November 7, 2010 at 11:54 am #

    That’s the exact sentiment I’ve come to realize, regarding startups being human institutions at the core. I feel it’s a daily struggle to overcome my “predictably irrational” brain in order to arrive to the best solution. Thanks for the post.

  4. Roy Rodenstein November 7, 2010 at 4:58 pm #

    Matt:
    1) Awesome piece. Important piece, and also seriously well-written. Very enjoyable to read the Mireles of Yore :)

    2) Yeah, although it’s still pretty obscure and misunderstood, Hunch is actually incredibly valuable. I think Chris is just not taking advantage of the value because a lot of what it could be used for might be considered slightly evil (at least in his mind). Or maybe they need better sales people :) But in any case Hunch tech is pretty legit and has value when they want to do something with it.

    • Matt Mireles November 7, 2010 at 8:52 pm #

      Agreed that the tech seems pretty legit and that there seems to be a lot of potential use cases. But Hunch also just did a major pivot––evidence that their chosen strategy wasn’t working. Again, not to knock––just that they’re figuring this shit out like everyone else.

  5. Nathan Hangen November 10, 2010 at 5:00 pm #

    Just checked out Hunch, and while it is incredibly accurate, I agree that it’s more of a feature than a service I’d pay for or use consistently.

    Anyway, great post, I really liked the angle and tone of this one. Hope to keep reading.

  6. missrogue November 12, 2010 at 4:00 pm #

    I agree with Roy. Hunch is early. And very valuable. And that data is bound to be a painkiller someday as data becomes more and more powerful. I think their pivot was in the wrong direction, personally. With Facebook creating an ‘export’, Hunch may have proven to be an interesting place to gather, analyze and shake up that content.

  7. Justin Hammack November 13, 2010 at 2:12 am #

    Yeah, well written!

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  1. Havas Media Lab » Disruption Landscape - 11/08/2010 - May 26, 2011

    [...] Startups Ain’t Always Pretty (And That’s Normal) – Matt Mireles [...]

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