We are going to cover a subject today that really gets both of us mad. Brainwashing. What we mean are the startups who mindless follow a model because “that’s the way it is done.” Too many entrepreneurs take a success story and try to “re-live” it. Today we want to tell you there is no one-way to success.
There is nothing wrong with listening to advice, podcasts, reading success stories,and getting general inspiration. It is when you don’t think about your own situation and try to run your business like someone else. Bias is the variable in all advice. What worked for one startup may not or most likely not work for yours.
Here are the topics we discussed:
- How brainwashing starts
- Why it is a problem
- The 2 mainstream camps
- One size does not fit all
- Hiten’s advice for startup novices
Being flexible and adjusting with your business needs is a far more favorable strategy. Rather than taking a “road map” model and trying to shoehorn your business into it.
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Steli Efti: Hey, everybody. This is Steli Efti.
Hiten Shah: And this is Hiten Shah.
Steli Efti: And in today’s episode of The Startup Chat, we’re going to talk about common ways entrepreneurs are being brainwashed and why it makes us angry and how to change that. But before we go into the episode, we have a public service announcement. We are going to have the very first live and in person The Startup Chat event. It’s going to be this month, so listen up. It’s going to be on March 31st from 6:00 to 9:00 PM in Palo Alto. That’s in the bay area. If you’re in the bay area or if you’re willing to buy a ticket from wherever you are in the world and fly here, we’re not promising it’s worth it—
Hiten Shah: Yeah, we’re not saying it’s worth it.
Steli Efti: We’re not saying it’s worth it, but we won’t stop you if you can make it physically to Palo Alto on March 31st.
Hiten Shah: At 6:00 PM Pacific.
Steli Efti: 6:00 PM Pacific. You’re going to be able to join an exclusive group of The Startup Chat listeners and we’re going to do a Q&A episodes where you can ask us questions, criticize, bullshit with us. We’re going to have some beer and pizza. It’s going to be a fun night. What you have to do to RSVP is you have to go to thestartupchat.com/fb for Facebook. Make sure to join the Facebook group if you’re not already part of it. I think you need to do a little bit of— the first post that is pinned is giving you the link to RSVP for the event. Is that correct?
Hiten Shah: That’s correct.
Steli Efti: All right. We want to see you there so make sure to go to thestartupchat.com/fb. RSVP for the event. March 31st 6:00 PM, Palo Alto, The Startup Chat live recording. Now that we got that out of the way, brainwashing.
Hiten Shah: Yeah.
Steli Efti: All right. So, what is that? What are common ways we think, we believe, we’ve observed that entrepreneurs are being brainwashed and then who’s doing the brainwashing and why. Let’s talk about that a little bit.
Hiten Shah: Sure. And, you know, some of it is like someone doesn’t have to brainwash you for you to be brainwashed, right?
Steli Efti: Okay.
Hiten Shah: Like you can just accept an idea and never think about the alternative and one could say you are brainwashed because that’s the only idea you entertain.
Steli Efti: Yup.
Hiten Shah: In startup land, I think the brainwashing happens from founder to founder, and it’s not brainwashing. It’s just anyone that you’re listening to, anyone that you’re willing to be open to their feedback, advice, ideas, thoughts, recommendations, processes, things like that because, you know, a lot of founders, entrepreneurs, even people working at companies are sharing a lot of stuff like how they do this, how they do that, how they started, how they do customer service. In your case, how you do sales because that’s how you teach people, you know, what your product can do and things like that.
And then you have the other side which is like investors and you have them saying a whole bunch of stuff and I think—I’ll give my marketing spin on it and tell you why I think this is the problem and then I’m sure you have more thoughts, but like I think this is a problem because there’s so many ways that you can reach an audience, you know, and anyone can reach the audience. So what happens is anybody’s message whether it’s right or wrong gets out there. Just think about Donald Trump and think about all these things like that, right? Like whether it’s a right or wrong message, it can get out there if someone has the skills.
And so I think founders, people working on startups, people trying to start businesses, they’re all susceptible to everyone else’s ideas when at the end of the day they’re running their own business and they have to make decisions for themselves, not based on someone else’s idea.
Steli Efti: Yeah. So, I love that kind of general way of thinking of it. I do think that—you know, when I look at the broader—not broad, but the little universe of like entrepreneurial business community that I am exposed to, I’m exposing myself to, the first thing people need to realize and I don’t think a lot of entrepreneurs especially very, you know, inexperienced or new entrepreneurs realize is that there are interest groups and there are biases.
So when I look at what type of advice or messages people put out there, you want to not just take it for granted but you want to ask yourself who is it coming from and what is that person’s bias and world view and what are their self-interests.
Hiten Shah: Yeah. Or even intention, right? Yeah.
Steli Efti: Intention, yeah. Because those things are going to influence their message and that doesn’t mean that the message is bad, it might be the exact right message for you but it means that you need to be cognizant of it to know who do you want to be basically brainwashed by or who not and have that self-awareness even to attach like the context behind the advice. So this is—let’s talk about some groups very specifically.
Hiten Shah: Sounds good.
Steli Efti: There are investors.
Hiten Shah: Yeah.
Steli Efti: Right? VCs, institutional investors, angel investors, they are a very strong interest group at least in the kind of startup, more tech world and we are part of this, so they’re investors and they have messages to entrepreneurs. They have advice. They give guidelines on what to do and how to do it, and they have very strong biases.
Hiten Shah: Yeah, they do.
Steli Efti: Some good and some bad and we can talk about them. There’s the press in general like all the outlets that write about entrepreneurship.
Hiten Shah: Yeah. That’s what most people are reading.
Steli Efti: Yes. That’s where, you know, most people are reading to learn about it, to read these stories, to be interested, to keep up-to-date. These outlets, the press, they have certain biases. There is a certain agenda and certain needs and that influences—
Hiten Shah: They hook up their friends just like everyone else.
Steli Efti: Yeah. And not only that, they want to sell advertising. They want to get a lot of page views, whatever it is, and they will do whatever will bring them that result. And I don’t know, I’m sure there’s—then there is the counter-culture. You always have a counter-culture that’s somewhat dogmatic. You have the people that go “We’re not with the cool kids, so we’re going to be different, but we’re going to hate the cool kids,” just dogmatically. Like in all situations, all of them suck, like these beautiful people over there—
Hiten Shah: So, are you talking about like self-funded founders that are—
Steli Efti: Yeah, I mean—
Hiten Shah: –you know, talking crap on raising money and all that?
Steli Efti: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I do think that there is a group of like self-funded bootstrap, whatever you want to call it. There’s a counter-culture.
Hiten Shah: No, we call it self-funded, Steli.
Steli Efti: Self-funded, sorry, it’s Hiten’s quest. Self-funded. I usually always say self-funded now.
Hiten Shah: Thank you.
Steli Efti: And there is a group of very vocal self-funded people that are very like—these all people suck and funding is always bad.
Hiten Shah: Yeah, and every time something happens with the funded company that’s bad, they got a jump out of you like—
Steli Efti: They celebrate.
Hiten Shah: –“Yo, what up? Like we were right. Whoa!”
Steli Efti: Yeah.
Hiten Shah: I love that. It’s entertaining.
Steli Efti: It is entertaining, you know, [0:06:45][Indiscernible]. But on the flip side, it’d be crazy. Imagine VCs or like whatever, VCs jumping on every self-funded mini-companies that didn’t work out.
Hiten Shah: That’s right. It’s like “Oh, you only make a million bucks a year? Oh.”
Steli Efti: “Oh, this didn’t work out without funding. Ha-ha!” It’s like—that would be hilarious. That would be so weird. But, yeah, there are—
Hiten Shah: They’re camps. There’s interest groups.
Steli Efti: Camps, yeah. And all of them have really good and really bad points, but there are some things I think that let’s maybe focus on the—
Hiten Shah: You got to pick a camp first. Does that help with the brainwashing?
Steli Efti: Well, first I think people don’t pick camps. I think people, the way that most people look at things— and this is grossly oversimplified.
Hiten Shah: That’s okay.
Steli Efti: But I think the way most people look at things are you look at who are the popular people because you kind of assume those people know more than others and they are worth more than others and you just try to be one of them. So, oh the billion dollar unicorn Google, that’s the—
Hiten Shah: I have to raise money to be successful like them.
Steli Efti: Yes. So, let me go to all these investors that are geniuses that have invested in these companies and just do whatever they say I should do because they probably know, right?
Hiten Shah: People think that?
Steli Efti: I do think so. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Many people, you know how many early founders that come to the valley, their number one agenda is “I want to raise money” and we’re not—
Hiten Shah: Oh, Steli, you said it so good I almost wanted to give you money right there. I got money for you.
Steli Efti: There you go. And they want to build a business, they want to do all these things. But really what they want to do is raise a shit ton of money. It’s just this validation. “I know if I raise money, it means I’m going to be successful. It means I’m worthy. It means I’ve done something great. It means I’m part of a club finally.” It’s the end and the means. It’s like they are so focused on the raising, it’s the number one priority, and it drives me crazy.
Raising money is great. I’ve raised money, but it’s not the goal. It’s a tool to get to somewhere, but it’s not the end of it. And every founder I know that has raised money for the first time, you ask them 3, 6, 9 months down the line and they’re very realistic or cynical about—
Hiten Shah: Raising money.
Steli Efti: –raising money and they go, “Yeah, I mean I’m grateful, but okay, it’s not what I thought it would be.”
Hiten Shah: That’s awesome.
Steli Efti: Right? It really isn’t.
Hiten Shah: But could you just try to tell them what it’s going to be, so—
Steli Efti: Yeah.
Hiten Shah: That’s why I’m wondering like it’s really prevalent, right?
Steli Efti: So, yeah, I do think that the majority will always gravitate to whatever is most popular, right? And there’s these big companies, there’s these VCs that have interest to creating this billion dollar businesses even if more companies failed because that’s how their portfolio works.
Hiten Shah: That’s their model.
Steli Efti: That’s their model.
Hiten Shah: They don’t need all of them to work. They’re not designed to work.
Steli Efti: The price wants to have the story of the unicorn once in a lifetime because that sells more [0:09:31][Indiscernible], more people want to read that story. So there’s this whole like massive kind of brainwash machine that says “You want to be a popular—” You want to be—it’s like the same thing with like—whatever. You could call the beauty industry which like you want to look this way if you want to be the most beautiful person and everybody should want to look like that because we all should want to be beautiful, right?
Hiten Shah: That’s right.
Steli Efti: Under a certain specific definition. And then we all—like around the world, we sell magazines and covers and we have TV shows and everything and we all want to look like one type of person. So, that’s I think what most people will gravitate to. And then there is people many times that will not be able to be part of that. For whatever reason, all will decide not to be part of it and then to justify that they’re not part of it, they will demonize it or they will say, “These people are stupid and ugly and bad and I’m in this minority that’s smarter than them and we are better. If I can’t be part of the club, I have to just—
Hiten Shah: Make my own club.
Steli Efti: Make my own club and say that that club sucked anyways, right?
Hiten Shah: Yeah, of course, because you need people in the club.
Steli Efti: There you go. And you don’t want to—you know, you don’t want to say this is the best club ever and I’m just not worthy enough of being part of it.
Hiten Shah: No.
Steli Efti: You don’t want to feel that. You want to go “If I can’t be part of this, then I don’t want to be part of it, right?” So, that’s I think the—I mean overly simplified, but the two big camps are the “You need to be a billion-dollar-raise-all-the-money-be-the-next-Google-or-you’re-nothing camp.” On the other camp that’s like you want to self-fund, grow slow and you never want to take any investor money at any circumstances or be on any real press because all that is bullshit. And both camps are wrong in the oversimplification of the this is one rule everybody should follow.
Hiten Shah: Absolutely.
Steli Efti: But I think that too many entrepreneurs buy into that bullshit. And we were talking about one specific VC that we both know. We’re not going to name any names.
Hiten Shah: No.
Steli Efti: That gives a lot of advice that I translate into if you don’t look like I want you to look like, you’re ugly and you’re not worth anything. If you’re not blond, blue-eyed, have this and this kind of measurements, you’re ugly, you should feel ashamed and you should feel not enough. It drives me crazy when I hear shit like that.
Hiten Shah: And the good news is there’s other VCs that I’ve seen that actually counter that point and they don’t even directly counter it like “Oh, that person wrote this. I’m going to write this.” But they countered and say “There’s a lot of different ways to make money. And there’s a lot of different ways to grow these businesses.”
Steli Efti: Yeah.
Hiten Shah: Right? I mean I think the other thing is oftentimes especially with investors, I see them having obviously just like all of us some limited personal experience and then they extrapolate that out into all these lessons for everybody else off of just one maybe fantastic experience. And that leads to more brainwashing, more dogma because the thing is like if you did something I don’t know 5 years ago, 8 years ago, 7 years ago, the environment has changed and a lot of the things you learn are probably not relevant anymore. And you forget oftentimes that like it might have just been easier when you did just because there was less—
Steli Efti: Yeah, yeah.
Hiten Shah: –critical things. And by sharing what you did, it’s not a bad thing. It’s just if you preach it the way you were describing where it’s like everything else is shit, and you’re just perpetuating probably something wrong, right?
Steli Efti: Yeah. But your—I mean I understand why you’re doing it because you have a self-interest to have as many people as possible to look at—
Hiten Shah: On that model.
Steli Efti: On that model.
Hiten Shah: Because you think it will make you money as an investor.
Steli Efti: Yes. So you’re teaching everybody that that’s the only model people should care about. And if you have another model, oh, you don’t want to do this, this, and this, yey! Then you have a business that’s not worthy for the big league. It’s not going to—
Hiten Shah: It won’t go fast enough, not big enough, whatever.
Steli Efti: But you’re going to be big enough or great enough or whatever.
Hiten Shah: Yeah. They might even be totally wrong.
Steli Efti: Oftentimes, it is—look at some of the biggest successors of all time. They didn’t really start as obvious big ideas. They’re bullet—
Hiten Shah: No, or with a specific structure or process or anything, yeah.
Steli Efti: Process like—so it’s very tough to know. So—
Hiten Shah: Well, I should ask you, do all sales teams look the same?
Steli Efti: No.
Hiten Shah: Are they are stamped out?
Steli Efti: No.
Hiten Shah: Because I think that’s one of the ones that makes me upset, right? It’s like people think there’s a way to stamp out B2B inside sales teams and like I’m just asking you because you should know.
Steli Efti: No. I do think that—so, listen. There is common good practices everywhere, things that have worked and things that might work again. But there’s not one way to do this. There’s not one way to do anything. And we are like most people are looking for the one way because that’s such an appealing idea, like just give me the one solution that will guarantee work, right? I mean that’s much more appealing than give me 7 options and I have to explore which one is going to be right or invent my 8th option. That is more complicated, more work, more doubt.
That’s why so many times when people ask us for advice, the first reaction is it depends. “Oh, Steli, should I do this, this, or this?” I don’t know. It depends. Like there’s no this is the one answer for you that will guarantee work and that’s why I think we both have a fairly similar framework in the way we give advice and the way we take advice that that’s why it annoys us when people use another framework that’s much more “I have figured it out. This is the answer for everybody.” Because that goes very much against our world view.
Hiten Shah: Yeah, there’s no one answer for everybody.
Steli Efti: There’s just no one answer for everybody.
Hiten Shah: Maybe food is the answer but nothing else.
Steli Efti: Yeah. So—okay, so enough about the rent part of it. I mean my—
Hiten Shah: What your people do? How should they think about it? Is that where we’re going?
Steli Efti: Yeah, how should they—yeah, yeah. Let’s just [0:15:00][Indiscernible]. Just a funny side note. I was talking to a founder the other day who went through an incubator. Tried to raise money but didn’t work out. They just shut down the company and he asked me—he was like, “Steli, you know, I don’t want to start a company right now, but I want to join a rocket ship startup to learn all the things that I did wrong and I want to see how like, you know, you raise an ABC and how you hire these people and how you become this huge unicorn thing. How can I guarantee that I’m going to find the rocket ship startup?” I’m like, “Dude, if you want a guarantee that you’re going to be working at a rocket ship startup, you need to go to, you know, SpaceX and work there.” There’s no fucking—
Hiten Shah: There’s no rocket ship startup.
Steli Efti: There’s no—but here’s the 4 things that will guarantee, there’s some things that look like it but tomorrow they might not anymore.
Hiten Shah: Yeah. I mean we’re seeing examples of that all over the place right now.
Steli Efti: All over the place right now. So, there’s no here’s the formula and then you go and you’re guaranteed. If you want rocket ship, you go to a rocket ship company, but there is no formula that’s easy to pick out on.
Hiten Shah: That’s right.
Steli Efti: Anyways, what you people do, how should—let’s focus and zoom in on inexperienced founders, founders that are still at the early part of their journey as kind of business people and they really consume a lot of advice because they want to learn a lot and they have a lot of questions. How do they—what is the framework that is going to serve them the best?
Hiten Shah: Well, usually if you’re inexperienced and you haven’t raised money yet, you know, or maybe haven’t even started your own business yet—
Steli Efti: Have never had a business with revenue, have never hired employees.
Hiten Shah: Yeah. And there’s a lot of things you just don’t know, and I don’t mean you don’t know what you don’t know. I don’t care about that. But like there’s just a lot of things you don’t know. And so, you know, one approach would be like go really dig in and try to pick a camp. If there are so many camps like and I need to pick a camp, I should pick a camp. So that’s one approach.
Steli Efti: Yeah.
Hiten Shah: Right? I think it’s probably the most human approach because we like to identify with things. So as much as I want to say, “Oh, don’t do that,” I think picking a camp is important.
Steli Efti: It’s important.
Hiten Shah: And realizing that you’re just picking a camp.
Steli Efti: Yes.
Hiten Shah: And it can change, but you’re picking a camp because you need to have some framework to approach your business. For example, let’s just pick the easiest camp, self-funding versus taking money, right? Venture funding. Those are camps. Depending on your skillset, you might pick one or the other. Depending on your means, you might pick one or the other, right? But they’re vastly different approaches and frameworks you would take. In a self-funded business, I would tell you just find some idea that’ll make you money on day yesterday, day 0, day 1, day 7, right? And in all the success stories I’ve seen on the self-funded side, I always made money super fast. That would be the one thing I would say. I’ve definitely seen that, right? Or, they had enough money or time to survive until they made money. That’s a caveat. But either way, it’s 1 or 2, right?
And then on the funding side, it’s like you’re worried more about size of idea, market—not market size but like market potential and things like that that you might not worry about when you’re self-funded. Now, that doesn’t mean I’m saying that like in a venture funding company always seem to worry about that. It’s just like commonly people tend to worry about that because they’re going to have to explain to somebody why it’s worth putting a lot of money into it and how you’re going to grow it once you have money. While a self-funded company, you don’t care. You’re just trying to make ends meet and make money so you can eventually be profitable and maybe feed your family, not have to work again and things like that.
So I think there’s also a way to think about the goals on those 2 different things, but I would say the first tip or suggestion I would give on this would be pick a camp, know what those camps look like and then figure out like how you want to execute.
Steli Efti: Yeah. I love that because I do believe it’s overly idealistic to assume that you can always operate within all camps, right? It’s probably not pragmatic or practical.
Hiten Shah: You’re hedging that.
Steli Efti: Yes.
Hiten Shah: I don’t think things are—especially new things aren’t built with hedges.
Steli Efti: Yes. But, I love—I think our main point with this episode is that even realizing that there are camps versus being lost in it and thinking this is the only way. They’re not even realizing I’ve—bless you—I’ve chosen a model or a group that function a certain way that has all these interest groups that has all these like these dynamics. I need to understand how this group works and then I could use to be part of it versus thinking I want to be a business person and this is the only way to be a business person. I think that alone, that awareness alone can make a big difference and the understanding that once you’ve picked the camp, you don’t have to stick to it forever.
Hiten Shah: No.
Steli Efti: You can either switch camps or start the next business in another camp and experience that one.
Hiten Shah: Yeah. I was self-funded, then VC back and now self-funded for the moment and I’m super open to more, right? More funding or whatever, I don’t know. Like let’s see what happens, right?
Steli Efti: Same thing here. The first few businesses, not even technology companies. Self-funded then venture-funded, self-funded, right? So, and the funny thing is when you talk to us in the self-funded camp versus other people sometimes, you could tell the difference in that we also are critical about the funded model but we are not like you should never raise money.
Hiten Shah: It’s just more pragmatic. It’s like there’s a situation where you’re raising money and helps you build a bigger business or a more is a more interesting opportunity or something you really want to pursue and you can get the money, you should get the money, right? Like from great people hopefully, right? But like outside of that, like it’s like I think we’re going to see more self-funded business anyways because it’s just easier to actually do, right? But that’s a whole different story. Yeah, so the biggest tip is picking a camp to make sure that when you’re getting brainwashed, it’s with some alignment of some group, right? Because you get brainwashed by the group if you pick it.
Steli Efti: You’re going to get like—another way of saying brainwash is like influenced.
Hiten Shah: Yeah.
Steli Efti: And the reason why I chose why I wanted to call it brainwashing is because I feel like the difference is—brainwashing communicates a lot stronger and you are not aware of it and it might not be in your best interest.
Hiten Shah: Right. So if you read everything that one VC says or even one entrepreneur says and you just believe it like dogma and then you go operate like that, I think what we’re trying to say is it’s going to cost you a lot of angst probably in the long run but also less chances of you building a successful business actually.
Steli Efti: Exactly, exactly.
Hiten Shah: Because it’s just one viewpoint and it’s not likely the best one for you, right?
Steli Efti: And that’s really the tip I think at the end, which is just realize which camp you want to be a part of, realize when you take advice from, you know, press, other founders, investors, what is their background, what is their—
Hiten Shah: Where are they coming from?
Steli Efti: Where is it coming from? What are their self-interest? It doesn’t mean that what they say is not right, but you just want to be aware of how they are influencing you versus stumbling into being brainwashed by a group randomly and—
Hiten Shah: And not knowing it or not understanding what’s going on.
Steli Efti: Not understanding it.
Hiten Shah: And you’re just talking in a way where you’re just speaking their words instead of your own.
Steli Efti: Yes. Thinking death thoughts, acting the way they do and then down the line and we’ve—I’ve done this before myself. We’ve seen this with many entrepreneurs. Wasting so much time trying to be somebody else or operate in somebody’s model.
Hiten Shah: Someone else’s model, someone else’s story.
Steli Efti: That’s not—that’s not right for you and it just breaks my heart.
Hiten Shah: And I think you and I can see that instantly, right? When someone comes to us. They look frustrated. They don’t look happy even if they’re acting happy.
Steli Efti: And also they want to do certain things and when you question them, you can tell that they don’t really know.
Hiten Shah: Oh, yeah.
Steli Efti: But there’s nothing fundamental—
Hiten Shah: You know my favorite? “Oh, this so and so said it.”
Steli Efti: Oh, yeah.
Hiten Shah: “So and so recommends. So and so wrote this and so I’m designing my system like this” and all that.
Steli Efti: Yeah, that’s a painful one because that to me that’s a big red flag for like brainwashing versus—you could just say the same thing but you just say, “We picked that model. We thought about it in these 3 ways. We read about it. This person told us this and then we thought about it and it fits because of X, Y and Z.”
Hiten Shah: Yeah. In our market.
Steli Efti: In our market.
Hiten Shah: For our customers.
Steli Efti: For our team.
Hiten Shah: Yeah.
Steli Efti: The way we like to—
Hiten Shah: Yeah. That’s what you want to hear.
Steli Efti: You go, “All right.”
Hiten Shah: Okay.
Steli Efti: They’ve been influenced but they—
Hiten Shah: Thought about it.
Steli Efti: They thought about it and that’s different from this person just seems brainwashed. They don’t even know why they’re doing it. They’re just doing it because somebody told them who they think knows more than them so they just do verbatim what they say without knowing the details of why that’s a good strategy or what the strategy even is. All right. If we could only save one person from being brainwashed with this episode, we are happy.
Hiten Shah: Yeah, exactly.
Steli Efti: But let us know what you think about it. Again, make sure to go to thestartupchat.com/fb. Join the Facebook group. If you’re in the bay area, join the live event on March 31st, 6:00 to 9:00 PM in Palo Alto with Hiten and myself and we’ll hear you very soon.
Hiten Shah: All right.
[End of transcript]