Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

running a start-up is great, growing a business is boring

When you’re a techie founder of a start-up, one day you wake up and you realize that starting a business is great, but that the more successful a business gets the more mundane the work that needs to be done.

In the end, the biggest pay-off is not in the initial idea, the spark of genius that drives the company forward initially, but in the enormous machinery, the life-support system that brings that spark to market and that makes it profitable.

This is one of the main reasons why the ‘serial-entrepreneur’ exists, these people excel in the early stages of building a product, launching it and dealing with the first batch of customers. But once you outgrow that, once your customer support department has more people working for it than you have r&d people, once you no longer know the names that go with all the faces in the cafetaria, once the biggest question is not ‘how can we make this work’ but ‘how can we stay competitive’ and ‘how did that media buy work out’ the atmosphere changes dramatically and many founders step down to start new ventures.

This is good, because to have an unmotivated person high up in the chain doesn’t help anybody, but it helps to simply note that when running a company the big money is usually not made in the technology, but in the marketing of the technology, and that the majority of that work is - compared to the technical challenges of the early days - relatively boring.

Take google, and more specifically their crown jewel, the pagerank algorithm as an example. When that first hit, it transformed the world of search. But once invented and coded up, the challenges changed. They went from a relatively straightforward algorithm to an immense machine that helps to market, scale and monetize that algorithm.

And even if plenty of the code behind that must be very interesting, the actual money is made in the adsense department, and though at that scale there are some interesting challenges, keyword advertising, statistics, reporting and so on are nowhere near as interesting as search.

Now, of course Brin & Page stayed on at Google, but they did hire someone else to be their CEO, and I highly doubt either one of them programmed a line of code on the adsense/adwords combo that makes most of Googles money.

If you are in a start-up for a love of technology then you’ll sooner or later find yourself moving on. If it is the money that motivates you, or if you like to manage people then you’ll have a longer term future. Think about that when you are a wanna-be founder and you are negotiating your package.

The feeling of being in a start-up does not scale by definition, once you reach a certain stage your company is simply a ‘going concern’ and the nature of the challenges change from technology oriented to being much more comparable with say running an insurance company or a bank.

If I look at my own company, now a bit over a decade old, 98%+ of the work is customer support, billing issues, maintenance, browser fixes, marketing etc. That’s pretty boring stuff. The 2% where I can hack up something cool is mostly there to keep me happy, I’d probably make a bit more money if I didn’t go off on tangents like that but it helps to keep me sane.

If making money is your goal then prepare to do a lot of boring but really important work, it will pay off tremendously.

If you’re in it just for the fun, avoid success at all cost!