The Single Most Useless Phrase You’ll Hear in the Startup World

When I was raising Ubiquity’s debut fund, I heard the following phrase time and time again: “Oh Sunil, get ready…. Raising a fund is really hard.” I heard a similar thing 10 years ago when I asked for advice on my startup Triangulate: “The first year of a startup is so hard.”

With hindsight, I now realize how unhelpful it is to hear that something is “hard”. It’s the single most useless phrase you’ll hear in the startup world.

Image credit: Free Solo/IMDB

In these instances from my own life, the phrase was delivered to me from well-meaning friends and experienced industry veterans alike, but let me tell you — this “advice” accomplishes nothing good. Such blanket discouraging statements can deter people unnecessarily and gloss over what exactly makes something difficult. It takes more effort, but being more precise about the nature of a challenge ensures that bright-eyed individuals at the start of a journey can judge for themselves if they are up for the specific type of obstacles ahead.

What is “hard”?

There are a number of distinct ways a pursuit can be “hard”, for example:

  • “Most who attempt this will fail” — Based on various estimates, somewhere north of 90% of startups fail and most founders know this when they start. The ones that succeed do so with such large economic outcomes that it keeps the startup/VC world turning.
  • “Lack of sleep” — During her medical residency, my pediatrician sister would work on the hospital floor for 36 hours straight, go home at a strange time like noon to sleep, and then return to the hospital to start her next shift at midnight.
  • “Unpredictable hours” — Professional service providers like lawyers, investment bankers, and consultants cater to demanding clients in the midst of urgent situations. When I was a consultant at Bain & Company, I never knew at what time I would leave the office or when I would have to cancel plans with friends or family.
  • “Doors will be slammed in your face a lot” — When I raised a seed round of capital for my last startup Triangulate in 2010, I pitched close to 100 investors and heard 100 “no”s before getting to a “yes”. The best salespeople are incredibly immune to rejection as they are somehow able to approach each new sales pitch with full enthusiasm.
  • “Major decisions with painfully little information” — Founders make decisions every day about product roadmap, hiring/firing, and cash management/fundraising with less time and far less information than feels responsible.
  • “Pushing through physical pain will be required” — Running the entire 26.2 miles of a marathon involves almost daily pain during the months-long training process, as well as on the big day.
  • “Disciplined daily effort for many years in order to see results” — I love playing piano, but this is an endeavor that requires regular (daily) practice in front of the keys. “Practice your scales” is a common refrain that underscores the importance of repeating the basics. Further, I realize that it’s only after I’ve played a musical piece about 1,000 times that I really start to understand it and play it correctly.

While some people may find they cannot handle long hours or non-stop rejection, others may thrive on it, and it’s not up to us to scare them off by just telling them something is “hard”. Using more precise terms when explaining the obstacles of a particular problem or industry will only serve to draw people who are sincerely interested in its specific complexities.

Consider this post my formal plea to everyone in the startup world to use more precise terms when it comes to describing industries, experiences, and entrepreneurial endeavors. Don’t hold back those with the drive and vision to enact change by insisting that their pursuit is “too hard”, or even impossible.

Are you pursuing something in the smart hardware or machine learning industry that you’ve been told is “too hard”? Let’s talk about it! Leave a comment or get in touch with Ubiquity Ventures.

Ubiquity Ventures — led by Sunil Nagaraj — is a seed-stage venture capital firm focusing on early-stage investments in software beyond the screen, primarily smart hardware and machine intelligence applications.

Ubiquity Ventures is a seed-stage venture capital firm focused on “software beyond the screen” — turning real world physical problems into software problems.

Ubiquity Ventures is a seed-stage venture capital firm focused on “software beyond the screen” — turning real world physical problems into software problems.