instant startups

Scanning Crains NY Business recently, I saw an article on ‘starting up’ in 54 hours.  It’s the brainchild of Marc Nager, Clint Nelsen and Franck Nouyrigat called Startup Weekend. Startup bootcamps seem to be the current extra-curricular activity of choice these days. Wharton is also getting in on it with their Innovation Tournament. Then there is the 48 Hour Startup  and of course let’s not forget the 3 Day Startup.

So what’s my beef?  Truth be told I admire the ambition, the optimism, and the openness of these efforts.  And for sure these bootstrapping marathons do introduce entrepreneurs to future colleagues and partners, get them asking the right questions about financing, customers, revenue, competition and so forth.

My problem with these events is they frame startups as something you *can* do quickly. As if it were a Lego set or pop-up book that gives instant results and gratification. Sure startups are 21st century tech-driven business that provide innovative products in a very short development cycle but a lot of the day-to-day running of the business are still very mundane 20th century sensibilities; not unlike running a mom and pop store, a laundromat, deli or sandwich shop.

No shortcuts to startup success

You have to learn how to ask your customers what they want, learn how to sell them something they need, and be prepared to be surprised in the process. I’ve worked with many startups and have seen often how many have had to throw out an idea that didn’t work and re-strategize. This takes courage an conviction.

One startup client was building iPhone apps for event management. After testing it on the market it turned out nobody really wanted an event management app.  But there was a market for professional and consulting services that can help build technology platforms, and architect the right solutions.  So they shifted gears and moved into that space.  They’ve grown tenfold since.

Another startup client’s change in direction was so radical that it even warranted a name change. Buzzd, started out as a city guide for consumers based on aggregating Facebook, FourSquare and Gowalla check-ins. Last October Buzzd became LocalResponse and turned its focus onto advertisers instead.

This kind of honest self-analysis and business acumen so crucial for survival can only be acquired through experience. For example managing overheads or being aware that profitability does not always mean solvency. And then there are decision taking and setting priorities. Repair that wall or build a new display case? Use that money on product and inventory?  Attract customers to your store?  What’s the right price point to settle on?  How do you avoid legal entanglements, and who are some of the predators to watch out for?

Startup crash courses are probably a great way for  aspiring entrepreneurs to network, and for VCs to spot the next killer investment. But at the same time, it feels suspiciously like a diet fad that promises to change 30+ years of behavior overnight, and get you looking like a bikini model in no time.  Fitness and health are lifestyle choices, as is building a successful business. As much as we like to think otherwise, there are simply no shortcuts.