The Symptoms, Causes and Cure to a sick Startup Ecosystem

Nov 14, 2011
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I am writing this article with the Paris startup ecosystem in mind, but based on the results of HowToWeb (C’mon Croatia, another event app ?), I’m going to go out on a limb and say that other emerging startup ecosystems are having similar problems….

LeCamping‘s Job Fair looked more like a therapy session this past weekend as “Job Providers” pitched to rooms of other job providers, with a handful of already employed “job seekers” looking to leave their day job to jump into the so-called startup world. Looking on, I couldn’t help but think “This ecosystem is sick…” and I began thinking…

“Well… What are the symptoms of a sick startup ecosystem?”

There is no priority of symptons – each ecosystem will present its own symptoms first and in their own order, but they will all revolve around similar principals:

Job Supply/Demand is Off

Keeping the supply and demand of job seekers vs. job providers is crucial, and going either way can be a problem. When there aren’t enough jobs available for those who want to work in startups, clearly your startup ecosystem is weak – it probably needs steroids to boost it into place. The current problem in Paris is quite the opposite: too many jobs. The most common response I hear to this is “oh, well, everyone’s searching for a developer and so it’s hard to find one…” I say Bullshit.

In an emerging startup ecosystem, we are very supportive of startups, so supportive that we’ve encouraged everyone to do their own project. At LeCamping Job Fair, I saw 16 teams, each with only 2-3 people, looking to hire everything from Biz to Design to Dev guys. Between those 16 teams, I saw the potential for 3-4 great startups, with all the skillsets necessary to innovate in whatever space they decided to… but that brings me to the next sympton

Forget loving the problem, you have to love startups

Over in the Holy Land of the Silicon Valley, we hear phrases like “don’t fall in love with your solution, fall in love with the problem.” The idea is: if you’re unwilling to see that your solution could be wrong, you won’t be able to pivot when the metrics suggest it. However, there is another assumption underneath, which is that A) The problem is a problem and B) You are the one most capable to find the solution. I think that, for a blossomed startup ecosystem, this idea holds true – that being said, I think the rule needs a bit of an augmentation:

Young French entrepreneurs are falling in love with problems, but they are getting hooked on that problem. One company I’ve given advice to is LeCamping’s HereWeDate, who are looking to change the way people date – the site is oriented around men proposing date ideas, and girls selecting the person based on their date. I think the idea is great, but not one founder has worked in online dating before, which is the equivalent of a giant neon saying reading “warning, we do not know our space.

France has encouraged entrepreneurship to the point where there are clearly enough companies – I think we need more entrepreneurs who fall in love with working in startups, not with a problem (and, as always, NEVER with a solution).

Hurt their feelings

Entrepreneurs in emerging ecosystems are being grown, like flowers: but their gardeners are afraid to prune them, for fear that they’ll kill the flower. But an experienced gardener knows that a flower grows bigger, stronger, and lives longer if you prune it as needed.

John Lewis, a LeCamping mentor, told me recently that he has been helping startups from the first season of LeCamping after the session ended, and he has found that those startups who are failing now are failing harder, because they are waiting longer to do so. I think that Mentors are afraid to say “No. Your idea won’t work” because they think that to discourage them will drive them away from entrepreneurship. I say Fuck that. I’ve heard French mentors say “the French take failure very personally, so we don’t want them to feel bad.” If you can’t handle someone telling you your idea is worthless, you shouldn’t be an entrepreneur.

The other end of that, of course, is being over-confident in your idea. While I was chewing out startups on Saturday at the job fair, I saw so many people giving demos of their product in the back of the room – those are startups i’m no longer interested in. If you don’t think criticism of another startup relates to your startup, you are going to fail.

This brings me to my last point:

“SO…. how do we cure a sick ecosystem?”

Simple: Honesty.

At the end of the job fair, we ripped apart 3 startups for 20 minutes each, in a “no bullshit” pitch session. One startup,AugmenteDev, had one sole founder, a developer, and he had come to the Job Fair looking to find another Dev to develop on iOS or Android using this AMAZING technology (seriously, the technology’s great). But, as we talked about the idea more, we broke down flaws in his perception of how the product would be sold – as it turns out, developers are not business guys (go figure). He learned that until he knows how he’s going to sell his prodcut, there’s no point in putting it on 1 or 20 platforms, because he’s nearly sure to have to pivot his development strategy. So after 20 minutes, he said “Ok, I guess I’ll find a Biz co-founder” and he ended up talking with someone in the room about working together.

I think you will be hearing a lot about AugmenteDev in the next coming months, if they can get their selling strategy together. That was a simple case of education in how to do a startup – complete your team before you expand one aspect of it. While Lars Hinrichs can call Developers artists of the 21st century all he wants, the fact is that even artists need patrons, curators, and galleries in order to sell their art.

The other side of Honesty is telling a team when they are going to fail in six months. What is the value-added of them learning that 6 months down the road, when you can have them figure it out now and pivot or join another project now? Don’t waste Founders’ time by letting them fail later.

Let’s wrap this Therapy Session Up…

So here’s the breakdown: I am vowing to be Rude, because I want startups in my ecosystem to succeed. If your idea is fundamentally flawed, I’m going to tell you to quit. If you’re a biz guy looking for developers, find them from another startup. Mentors: You need to be Rude, too. I started by pointing out “pressure points” to startups, but I’m realizing that it’s easy for a startup to overlook advice that is presented nicely.

If you want honest advice about your startup, contact me any time. I’m no mentor, but if you can’t convince ME your product can succeed, how’re you going to convince your users, or worse, investors?