Don’t build a good company.
Build a great one.
Good startups are worse than bad ones. Bad ones you can shut down right away. But with good ones, you’ll get positive feedback, maybe even a strong user base, but will get stuck at a local maximum and struggle for months, years to get past it. And then will keep pivoting until you shut down. That’s a terrible place to be.
Now, great ideas, those are powerful. When you have a great idea, the world slowly opens up for you, you feel like a snowball rolling down a steep hill, picking up more and more momentum, getting bigger and bigger and bigger.
I know, because I’ve been a part of all 3.
Kickfour, a social TV startup I founded with @whereandy and @yishaiknobel, was a bad idea. I won’t bore you with the details, but all you need to know is that we barely used it ourselves, which for the record is usually a sign that you have a bad idea.
Sensobi, a smarter address book for your phone (also founded with @whereandy), was a good idea. We launched out of TechStars Boston and grew to several hundred thousand users, many of whom used the app every day (including us). And those users would email, tweet, let us know that our app made their lives better. Including one email from a mother with an autistic child, which described how Sensobi helped her track her calls, emails, and texts with all her son’s physicians and services. Our users loved us, which made us feel like we were onto something great. These were heady, inspired times.
But our growth slowed and we struggled to grow the product into a real business. At that point we could have realized that we had a good, not a great idea, and pivoted to something in the same space but better, but it was too late. We had momentum, which allowed us to be less critical of our idea. There were warning signs from the beginning, but instead of realizing that our product was targeting a limited market, we were blinded by the attention, and ended up spending two life-consuming years on the business. To keep our expenses low, I moved home with my parents, right after I turned 30. Andy relied on his wife for financial support. We would find scraps of work to pay the bills.
That is what good ideas do. They eat up years of your life, years that you can never get back, years that would have been better spent building a great idea.
GroupMe allowed us to feel what a great idea is like. When I met Steve and Jared, I immediately saw that they were onto something big. They had a product that I (and, at that point, thousands of other people) were using every day. They were growing at a breathtaking speed, and were building one of the best teams I had ever seen. They were sitting on the top of a massive iceberg, with an opportunity to transform the way we communicate with each other.
And comparing GroupMe and Sensobi, I first saw the difference between Great and just Good. It was as if both companies were exploring the same sea, but while Sensobi was furiously paddling in a small row boat, GroupMe had giant sails with a full wind at its back.
Fortunately for us, they liked what we had built and offered to acquire us to join the team. And unlike other companies that were trying to acquire us, we saw that GroupMe had a great idea, so we accepted. Which is about as good an outcome as you could hope with a good idea.
Of course, GroupMe hasn’t changed the world yet. But today, with millions of users and billions (and billions, and billions) of messages sent, we are on our way.
Good is the enemy of great. Don’t settle for good.
Of course, telling the difference is hard. Which is why you need to be brutally honest with yourself.
And even when you think you’ve found a great idea, remember, it still sucks.