Why you should lower your ambitions for your first time in startups

- February 2, 2023 3 MIN READ
The Graduate, 1967.
How many times have you picked up the entertainment section of a newspaper to read a restaurant review that begins with something like:

“The owner of this aspiring Michelin Guide restaurant, which is opening for the first time this week, says they’ve not only never started a restaurant before, they’ve actually been in hospitality for less than 18 months. They originally trained as a lawyer, but were inspired to switch careers when frustrated by how hard it is to get any great modern Tunisian food in this city.”

“The more I looked into it, the more convinced I became that the world needs a great modern Tunisian restaurant,” they said.

“So, I read a lot of blog posts about how to start a restaurant, listened to some podcasts, spent my life savings on the first year’s lease and fit-out, and hired a chef who DM’d me when I said I was looking for a chef in a Facebook group. They’ve never been a head chef before, haven’t ever cooked Tunisian food before either, but they seem to know how to chop vegetables and heat things up, and they assure me that all proteins are fundamentally very similar.”

“We’ve only known each other for about six months and honestly, I don’t really understand what they do, or how to do any of it myself. But I have lived experience of the problem, and a clear vision for what we need to achieve. Anyway, now we’re out there hoping to show enough booking revenue growth that we can raise some money from investors and go global as soon as possible.”

If you booked a table at that restaurant on its opening night, how good do you think your dining experience would be?

If you reviewed that restaurant for the newspaper, would you be constructively critical in such a way as to help the new restaurant owner raise capital for their business, or would you write something like, “who on earth would expect to succeed, having no prior hospitality industry experience and hiring a chef who was learning-on-the-job how to cook the world’s best Tunisian cuisine? Worst. Meal. Ever.”

How to founder

If you’re not ‘getting’ my analogy yet, let me be clear: the first-time restaurant owner is you, if you’ve changed careers (or just graduated from university) and your goal is to become a successful startup founder.

Your chef is your first technical hire, if they’ve been working as an engineer or product manager before but have never built this kind of startup before or never been a tech cofounder.

There’s no question that the potential rewards for the first-time tech startup founders who succeed despite the odds are probably vastly greater than the potential rewards from opening a chain of successful restaurants.

But still, they are only potential rewards, with the odds stacked so high against you that you’d be as likely to succeed if you decided to pivot and open a fine dining restaurant instead. The most likely rewards for a first-time founder and their first-time cofounder are likely to be some valuable lessons learned from how and why their startup failed.

So if the well-advised individual, aspiring to enter the startup industry, shouldn’t come up with an idea for a startup, find a cofounder and start reading blogs*, what should they do instead?

The answer’s surprisingly simple: try to get an entry-level role in a startup, using some of the skills and experience you already possess.

Get paid a probably-modest salary (which is better than no salary at all, as a new founder) and focus on learning everything you can from the people at that startup who have more experience than you.

It doesn’t even have to be a successful startup, since you’re probably smart enough to learn from what not to do as well as what you should do.

You don’t even need to join a startup very early in its journey, if it’s still truly a startup (my definition of a startup is “a company that is not yet viable, with an organisational culture more interested in chasing the potential opportunity than decreasing the potential risk”). 

Although I talk a good game about being the second employee of Yahoo in Australia, I was the 118th worldwide, and yet I still had ample opportunity to learn-by-experimenting, lots to design from scratch, and more independence and autonomy than I really should have had.

The five years I spent at Yahoo were life-changing, both in skills and experience, and in my personal financial circumstances.

You wouldn’t throw in your career and sink your life savings into starting a restaurant; you’d do a quick training course and try to find a role in the front-of-house team or the kitchen of a joint that’s growing fast and run by some smart people that you can learn from. Then you’d work your arse off, learn as much as you can, and trust that if you keep that up, luck will eventually offer you the next opportunity on the path towards being a successful restaurateur.

If Australian startups have just one perception to solve, it’s this one: most of us want to start out as either the head chef or the restaurateur.

* You should of course absolutely read StartupDaily religiously, daily, and click on all the ads.