An old friend and I are about to launch a new business. Between us, we have academic qualifications, a business degree, years of professional experience in various fields – and a recently acquired dose of entrepreneurial anxiety. Despite years of preparation for this moment, it turns out nothing can adequately equip you for the visceral reality of standing on the precipice of a new venture and peering over the edge.
One of the first things that hits you is that it’s a gruelling, yet surprisingly addictive, ride. It’s not just navigating the practicalities: counting and recounting lots of numbers, market sizing and research, business plans, testing prototypes, raising money, waiting, more waiting. It’s also the full-throttle emotional rollercoaster you unwittingly buckle yourself into when you’re first setting out.
The emotional journey is real and raw. Your otherwise mild disposition and enthusiasm for life give way to a pendulum swinging daily between excitement, despair, fear, envy and elation. The division between work and life is suddenly erased. It’s a heady, self-centred pursuit and you’re completely caught up in it. It’s hard to remember a time when I wasn’t preoccupied by constantly simmering thoughts and fresh worries about our Big Idea.
Then there’s the paranoia. It can (and does) strike at any stage of running a business, but “new venture” paranoia is the one I’m currently intimately acquainted with. It’s characterised by an acute fear that someone – anyone – is stealing your idea when it’s just that, an idea, and is therefore unprotectable. (That is, unless you go around dishing out non-disclosure agreements to everyone you happen to mention it to, which is cynical, impractical and a bit odd. And even then: good luck enforcing it.)
The extent to which you’re afflicted by paranoia is influenced by your appetite for risk, as well as your personal circumstances, belief in yourself and your team. It’s also the confidence you have in your product in its market: will the public like and embrace it? What slim advantage do you have over your competitors, and how quickly could that be eroded? For me, as a new parent with one flesh-and-blood baby and another of the new business (and as-yet unsalaried) variety, my sensitivity is unquestionably amplified.
The fear strikes anywhere and everywhere. The pub: you casually mention to a friend that you’re working up a prototype for a new mobile platform that will one day free the world with its sheer genius and simplicity. But wait, what’s this? You’ve heard of something spookily similar that’s just launched? Brilliant. Someone else got there first.
The tough reality of any new venture (especially tech-based startups like ours) is that you’re rarely the first. But you can be the best – even if you arrive on the scene second, or third, or much later. History is littered with pioneers who paved the way, only to be clambered over by other, more nimble adventurers. In fact, not being first has its own advantages. Introducing a brand new concept to a sceptical public is tough – especially on a budget. A competitor with a head start on you might actually help to introduce the idea to the public and clear a welcome shortcut to market.
Other, more established founders describe being pursued by a Cerberus-like fear nipping at their heels that someone else is stealing their thunder. Remember Steve Jobs threatening to go “thermonuclear” on Google’s Android operating system, apparently saying to Google’s then chief executive, Eric Schmidt: “If you offer me $5bn, I won’t want it. I’ve got plenty of money. I want you to stop using our ideas in Android – that’s all I want.”
Delusions of persecution, exaggerated self-importance, excessive distrust – it’s ugly, it’s unpleasant and it’s par for the course for entrepreneurs. It’s unsurprising, really; starting a business is (to some extent) an exercise of the ego – and it’s you against the world: they’re wrong so prove them wrong; or, they’re right so watch, learn, and adapt.
Our product (the world-changing app) exists in a highly competitive and fast-changing market, where big players can build things quickly and muscle us out. In the full knowledge of that fact, we’re attempting two contradictory things: to make sure we know everything about our competitors, and to try not to lose too much sleep over them – I’ve got my baby son for that.
Aled John is co-founder of group payment app Whipit
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