To Build Your Startup, Do the Hustle
Talent and great ideas aren't enough. If you want to succeed as an entrepreneur, you gotta have hustle.
- By Patrick Foley
Last month, I promised to write about A/B testing, but I'm going to be meeting with some experts on that subject in the next couple of weeks, and I want to get their latest thoughts first. I'll return to that subject next month.
Today I'd like to talk about a key ingredient for creating a successful software business: hustle.
Dave McClure says that every startup needs a hacker, a hustler and a designer. Since you're reading Visual Studio Magazine, you're almost certainly a hacker: someone who knows how to create new and useful solutions by writing code and assembling existing components.
Most programmers speak about hacking fondly; it's a term of endearment (not to be confused with cracking). Hustling is a similar term of endearment for having the business skills to get deals done and make money. Like hacking, hustling is an overloaded word that can mean something positive (working hard, putting in extra effort) or something negative (grifting). Obviously, I'm talking about the good kind of hustle.
Design is important as well, but it's not just about pretty visuals; it's about "user experience," or UX. A good designer works to make every aspect of interacting with your company a positive experience for your customers. The better hackers and hustlers I know care about this, too. At a minimum, they tend to have an eye for software "flow," if not the ability to make software visually beautiful. You can consider yourself a software designer (or even user interaction designer), but you still need to work with a graphic designer to make anything look pretty.
Some people can play all three roles: hacker, hustler, and designer (Bob, Rob, Mike, Patrick, Andy, and Corey are friends that jump to mind). But you don't have to do all three roles! In fact, the conventional wisdom is that you're more likely to succeed if you team up with a cofounder or two who can complement your strengths.
Here's the good news: you're a hacker. Hackers are in high demand. Good hackers are hard to find. If you're a good hacker, there are many startups who want to hire you and many non-technical founders who would like to team up with you.
But if you're not a hustler, where do you go to find one? The simplest way is to attend a Startup Weekend or similar event. As I mentioned in a previous column, Startup Weekends have given birth to some successful, fast-growing companies. But perhaps you don't convince people to work on your idea the first time you attend. Or perhaps you latch onto a team that doesn't survive past the weekend. Don't worry; at least you'll be meeting people with like-minded interests and complementary skills. Take advantage of every opportunity to network and meet people you might want to work with now or in the future.
If you do find yourself working in a startup as a hacker, learn all you can about the business. Then you'll be much more of a hustler by the time you start your next business. You can learn how to hustle. Gary Vaynerchuk is probably the most outspoken writer and speaker on the subject, and he suggests that hustle is mostly about hard work. The first step toward succeeding in business is simply choosing to do that work.
The Big Mo
Noah Kagan inspired me to think about hustle last year at MicroConf. He recently told me that hustling is about gaining momentum. Noah's AppSumo has hundreds of thousands of customers now, but what was it like on Day One? How do you gain momentum when you have no customers? You hustle. You put in the work and stay focused on your goal. You summon all your energy to run over, around or through the artificial barriers between you and success. You do whatever it takes to get that first customer. After you get your first customer, you hustle to get 10. After you get 10, you hustle to get 100. And so on. According to Noah, the hustle never stops; it just changes as you become more and more successful.
Scott Quibell is in the "discovery" phase with his startup, coreFenix . He's figured out a way to use his mathematics expertise to speed up complex matrix calculations; valuable stuff, but it's a lot of work to explain it to each customer.
His end goal is to apply his technology in a repeatable way, so that he can build an asset that "makes money while he sleeps ," but it's going to take a while to get there. Until he does, he's funding customer development by consulting. That's hustle. Would he rather spend 100 percent of his time on his product? Of course. But if you don't have outside funding, you have to put in extra work to build your company while also putting food on the table. Hustle means putting in that extra work.
A key element of hustle is having a nose for money: cold, hard, here-and-now, cash money. Not theoretical, in-the-business-plan, someday-in-the-future money. Before you have momentum, it's not even a lot of money.
I heard a great example of this kind of hustle 12 years ago when Amy Sedaris was interviewed on Fresh Air. At the end of the interview (18 minutes in), Amy confesses that even though she had a successful television show, she didn't bother to quit her job as a waitress, because she simply loves to make money! She particularly loves making cash: "I also make cupcakes and cheese balls on the side. When I do plays, I sell them in the lobby. I did the Conan O'Brien show a few weeks ago, and I talked about my cheese balls and got four phone calls. I sold four cheese balls." That's hustle.
Hustle = Concrete Action
What's the equivalent of selling cheese balls for hackers like us? It's having the guts to publish an app and charge money for it. Your first app might not make much money, but you'll learn about the end-to-end process of creating something valuable and getting customers. You'll learn about the joy of hustle. You might spend 50 hours writing an app and only make enough to take your spouse to dinner, but that dinner will taste special to you. It might whet your appetite to do customer development and make a bigger, better, more-valuable app. Once you get good at hustle, you'll be amazed at what you achieve.
I'm not a born hustler. By nature, I'm more of a chin stroker. I'm really good at assimilating abstract knowledge, but I often struggle with concrete action. Hustle is all about concrete action. It's about doing. It's about work. And anybody can get good at it.
Dharmesh Shah summed it up nicely: smart people often get their butts kicked by other smart people who worked harder. If you want to have a successful startup of your own, you'd better be prepared to hustle.
Let me know how you're hustling in the comments, on twitter, or by emailing me at Patrick.Foley@microsoft.com.
(Note: I've interviewed Noah Kaganon the Startup Success Podcast with Bob Walsh)