Those of us in and around the world of startup pitches talk about what problem is being solved, i.e. why will someone need your product and be willing to pay for it in order to fix something that needs fixing. If your prospective customer doesn’t recognize that such a problem exists, you have some extra selling to do. 

Soren Kierkegaard would have been a tough customer. Recall his famous quote: “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”

Remember that businesses are much more prone to try new ideas that make them money than ones than replace old habits in order to save them money. Individuals, particularly in the younger generations, seem far more inclined to pay for expanded experiences than to accumulate articles that require time and cost to maintain and that go out of fashion. Try making your product a key asset in that new and brighter reality and and getting your customer to focus on its glorious benefits.

We engineers pride ourselves as problem solvers, and we sometimes lose sight of the surrounding reality. Little technology problems are like games; they’re fun to tackle and resolve. No matter what is in your personal tech stack, you probably have challenges rather frequently as your equipment wears out or gets damaged, upgrades slow you down, your Internet connection blinks, or you run into some old-fashioned bugs in whatever software you are depending on for your next accomplishment. You get past them by remaining calm, perhaps actually reading some instructions or FAQ’s, looking at YouTube for help, or asking your handiest expert. Unfortunately, however, most startup problems are much more consequential than these puzzling little diversions.

People problems are the bane of any entrepreneur. Your key employees may get sick, resign at a most inopportune time, steal your ideas or your property, have trouble getting along with your team or your customers, or just generally prove ill-suited for their assignments. Fixing any of these situations generates emotional stress for all involved. And, at early stages when your headcount is under 50 or so, everyone always seems to know everyone else’s business. Never count on secrecy or privacy when you’re dealing with a touchy personnel matter. Never count on rational behavior, either. When relationships break, people become different; their self-interests come to the fore; and they aren’t inclined to protect your interests as their leader. These are problems that you can’t solve by throwing money at them and that you can’t hand off to your lieutenants. You know where the buck stops.

If you question my assertion here, just look at the messy cap tables of most startups. I rest my case.

YOU probably caused most of these problems. You made hiring mistakes; you realized those mistakes but let them fester way too long before acting; you stressed the company by running it on fumes; heck, you probably actually made some people sick. Einstein had some practical insight on your situation: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” You may have to change your behavior or style to grow the company healthily, or you may have to actively look for more experienced leadership to complement your weaknesses. Nobody is good at all the facets of a startup, but you can be very good at surrounding yourself with the right blend of talent to achieve your goals.

Think about all this from the viewpoint of your prospective investors. They really don’t care that you are solving a problem. They are only interested in your making them money and explaining generally how you are going to accomplish that. To them that is reality. The better ones will always be helpful as sounding boards, sources of customers, sources of future investors, and, perhaps most important, sources and evaluators of your key leadership hires. Their only measure of success is the ultimate value you generate in the venture. If you present them with an intractable set of problems, they will simply allow you to fail and refocus on the better components of their portfolios. Nothing personal, except that “all business is personal,” and you know where that quote originated.

I encourage you to read military histories for relevant lessons on leadership under extreme duress. Leadership IS your primary task as a startup founder. Pore over famed British historian Max Hastings’ 2019 book Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy for its accounting of consequences over motives in this world-changing tragedy of 1945-75. Running a war by the numbers with little concern for its impact on human lives on either side accomplished nothing good in Sir Hasting’s assessment. There was no problem solved, and the ultimate reality was certainly not worth the cost. You may think you know that story, but this British author added new insights for which he was widely acclaimed.

As an aside, I recently met Hasting’s son Harry through family connections and struck up a pen pal relationship with “the old man” as Harry calls him. As you might expect, I have read nearly all his extensive catalog of books; Harry has read none, although he’s done quite well in the travel industry. Don’t count on your offspring to carry on your business! I offered to summarize some of the books for Harry the next time I see him.

In summary, look in the mirror first when things go awry in your startup, adapt, adjust, and stay focused on the reality you are attempting to create. You will ultimately be judged as a creator, not as a solver. The colleagues that give you headaches today will be the ones that are instrumental in that creative success if you lead them properly.