This is part of my Series on Entrepreneurial Culture.
A good friend of mine who played in the NFL once told me that the biggest difference between the college game and the pros is the ferocious speed and the sheer density of the players. This stunning contrast was most often encapsulated for him during the course of the many outrageously violent collisions in which he participated. He has remarked on several occasions that the dramatic impression established in those first few days in the pros has never left him. Simply put, the NFL is a reality-check and a wake-up call to anyone and everyone associated with it. You absolutely need to put it all on the line and there is no place to hide. Just looking the part isn't enough, or, to borrow an oft-repeated football phrase, players who are "built like Tarzan and play like Jane" simply don't last very long.
I would hazard that the world of startups and entrepreneurship is very similar. If you want to build a successful company there are simply no excuses or shortcuts. It simply has to be an "all-in" approach that's all about commitment. Putting together a nice powerpoint presentation, executive summary, market analysis and making a nice pitch doesn't mean very much. So don't get lulled into the little self-congratulatory bubbles out there where it's all about "presenting to VC's" and 'honing your elevator pitch' and doing the business plan competition circuit.
Remember, startups are not a fashion-show or beauty contest- it's all about executing in the marketplace.
For better or for worse, the same applies to getting funded these days. Many first-time entrepreneurs have a deep misunderstanding about the investment climate out there and not only waste a lot of time seeking capital before they are ready, but also hurt their company's reputation in the process. More than ever, angel investors and VC's want to see a product that you have launched in the marketplace before they will even consider funding a startup. There are legions of people running around with beautiful and well rehearsed powerpoint presentations that describe pre-product and pre-revenue businesses with essentially the same pitch: "If only you would give me $___, I could build this." On very rare, outlier-type occasions an investor will back you anyway because he or she thinks you have amazing potential- but remember, this is incredibly rare!
Imagine now how different your pitch would be if you could show investors your product, your customers, your adoption, etc. That first impression would be so dramatically different! Think about it- you have struggled, boot-strapped, put your own sweat and sometimes money into making this real. Most investors will immediately respect you for this, whether they like the business or not. It distinguishes you immensely- especially in these tough times.
Below are a couple of quotes I will end with from some of the 'pro-level' guys out there. I insert them here both as a reality check, a challenge and perhaps to fire you up. I like these guys because they don't put a veneer out there and let you know exactly what they are looking for or what they think.
"If you’ve made an amazing product that I should consider for one of my ten yearly investments please send the URL of this product to------------ and cc me -------------- to get the ball rolling. No business plans, models or decks–I won’t open them. I only invest in real products built by killers. I don’t invest in powerpoint decks or bullshit business models–show me the product!"
"The startup is a magical place. It's a place where expenses are someone else's problem..... It's a place where you can spend other people's money until you figure out a way to make your own..... The problem with this magical place is it's a fairy tale....
.... So don't use the idea of a startup as a crutch. Instead, start an actual business. Actual businesses have to deal with actual things like bills and payroll. Actual businesses worry about profit from day one. Actual businesses don't mask problems by saying, 'It's OK, we're a startup." Act like an actual business and you'll have a much better shot at succeeding."
Fried & Heinemeier-Hansson in Rework