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CEO of Svpply: I have no idea what I'm doing (pieratt.tumblr.com)
177 points by j2d2j2d2 on May 13, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 72 comments

I am very grateful for this post. One of the most common pieces of valuable feedback I got before starting my company (as a sole founder) is that I need to keep going no matter what - especially in times of self-doubt.

I always considered myself to be confident, and self-assured (not obnoxious, just confident)...but starting a company is a completely different cup of tea. I have both a Computer Science degree + an MBA. I learned Rails on my own and I thought that would be the hard part. Just to learn that transitioning from hardcore product development to sales & marketing is even trickier than I thought.

When you think about all the promises you have made to people, and things you have sold in various ways, it's perfectly natural to get self-doubt....especially given that things will NOT happen exactly the way you planned. This. Happens. A. LOT.

Self-doubt is one of the most unspoken about aspects of starting a company and I am glad that Ben has so courageously spoken about it so publicly.

If you have never done a startup before, nothing can prepare you for the experience fully. I read every PG essay, most of Founders at Work, almost every other bio/story of most if not all of the tech founders from Fairchild Semiconductors to Facebook, watched dozens - if not a hundred+ - of Mizergy interviews, understand finance & economics (I can explain the differences between a Collaterized Debt Obligation & a Credit Default Swap), also know most of the fine points of the standard term sheet (including to focus less on valuation on more on things like liquidation preferences, etc.), know enough legalese to understand most contracts, I built teams from scratch, recruited people to work with me on a project bigger than myself but under-resourced, hell even worked at another startup before...but having done all of that...I still wake up every morning and there are MANY things that I am tackling for the first time - and it makes me doubt myself.

Most people won't talk about it, but I think we need to start being real with ourselves - for the health of the startup community. Especially for those of us that don't have investors or many mentors, or don't live in the Valley, or are not YC-alums.

So Thank You Ben. For being so honest. For being so real.

Completely agreed. I'm a sole founder as well and my friends keep telling me "wow, you really know your stuff" but in reality I have no idea what I'm doing.

I spend all my time in a state of confusion.

But after a while you get used to it, actually. And you just keep going and learn as you go.

I am a first time CEO too. I have startup experience and even experience as a business owner. However, being CEO of a startup with outside investors is a whole new experience.

I am lucky to have great investors, a strong and friendly board, a few great employees, but like you said, I often am doing things I have no idea how to do.

My one tip to other first-time CEOs: over communicate. I send out a weekly(ish) internal email to my team, board, investors, and advisors. Everyone gets the same email, so there is no bullshitting. The investors love it.

Thank you for that post. I wish I could go back in time 5 years and read it then. I'm an MBA + CS degree bearing startup founder with autodidact Rails skills too. Now, I don't really need the advice anymore having it figured out myself already but it's nice to see I'm not alone.

If you are lucky, the self-doubt makes way for self-confidence eventually. Even for completely new things you start thinking, "well, I managed the last few times, it will probably work out OK this time too". I wonder if all the confident people I see starting out just have naive bravado or are very good at hiding their self-doubt.

everyday is a series of lessons that prepares you for tomorrow and beyond. build on it. i think it is generally understood among any startup ceo's that this is what its like. honestly, i don't think it is something that should be openly discussed. i've shared moments of doubt with individuals very close to me, just needing to be human in rough times of building my business, and it did not help. you find inner strength to deal with the challenges and learn to leverage every possible resource to solve each and every problem that comes your way. it is just what you do...or you fail. i love it now that i know what it is, but it does take some time to grow into. and i am not claiming to know what tomorrow will bring, but i know i can handle it, and more importantly, my employees are confident that i have a firm grasp on their future.

As I've often said in the past: "Fear (of failure) is a great motivator"

It's a shame so many of the comments here are criticizing this guy for not lying more.

Witholding the truth isn't lying.

This is an attitude I've never agreed with. Say you're an investor. Would you rather this CEO put on an I-know-what-I'm-doing face, and imply that he's got this all under control? Or would you rather he be upfront about his lack of experience but determination to get it right by learning and surrounding himself with smart people that can help him? Maybe he fails, maybe he doesn't. At least you know what you're getting into.

Dishonesty is dishonesty no matter how you cut it.

> Would you rather this CEO put on an I-know-what-I'm-doing face, and imply that he's got this all under control?

Up front in my office or up front in a public blog? I certainly wouldn't want him scaring off potential deals with over-the-top candor.

> Dishonesty is dishonesty no matter how you cut it.

This is a ridiculous assertion. If you walk around saying every true thing that comes into your mind at best you'll be treated like you have Tourette's, and at worst you'll be a complete pariah. Honesty and integrity tend to fall in the "know it when you see it" camp for most people, but the criteria are far from black and white.

You lie for PR. This blog post seems to be great PR, going for an honest approach to the realities and approaches of heading up a company. What potential deals is he scaring off? Instead a group of intelligent individuals are now exposed to not only him, his integrity, and his product. I had never heard of svpply before today.

I call that a PR win.

You're reading a comment I didn't write. I was replying to "Withholding the truth isn't lying." Telling the truth in the privacy of your office isn't withholding the truth. How public you should be about this sort of thing is debatable (which is what most of the discussion here was), but I wasn't speaking to that. F_J_H articulated my point a little more clearly.

> If you walk around saying every true thing that comes into your mind at best you'll be treated like you have Tourette's, and at worst you'll be a complete pariah.

Actually, this guy seems to have done pretty well that way: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brad_Blanton

If I'd be investor, I'd prefer my CEO tell the truth in my face, not in the blog post for the rest of the world to see.

Are you an investor?

Intentionally/knowingly leaving someone with the wrong impression is dishonest however...

Yes, that dress does make you look fat. And you are getting fatter anyways so why worry about which dress to get? Besides, people are more likely to notice the wrinkles around your eyes or your sagging boobs than they will an extra ten pounds. Oh now they'll definitely notice all that running mascara... it makes your face look awful.

Sure it is, it's called a "lie by omission." Whether this matters in a given situation is determined by the person's ethics.

True. Good point.

You don't have to lie, but MUST know when to shut the hell up.

To quote Atmosphere:

"Now, when you come to apply for a job Don't tell 'em you're homeless 'Cause I promise they won't hire you And if they like your songs Just nod your head and play along Never tell 'em what inspires you I bet my fans know me better than my friends do Because my friends don't pay that much attention The fans memorize every single sentence Which makes them far too smart to ever start a friendship I need to start writing pieces about other people's problems 'Cause strangers are starting to get worried I'm in a hurry to try to slow the system down a bit And find happiness before I hit thirty"

I'm pulling for Ben, if only because svpply tries to solve a problem (universal Internet wish list) while generating a metric f---load of data. If they do it right, they could develop an amazing recommendation algorithm.

I liked reading it, and I can't help but root for the guy.

That said, startups don't need people who like them so much as they need people who trust them. As an investor, customer, or employee, I do need to know that the founder can tell what problems are on the horizon, and is brutally honest about which ones will be challenging. But I also need to know that he'll take care of them, or if not, that he'll hire someone who will (or, if an employee, he'll tell me to do it).

But founders aren't superhuman, and the money involved in successful acquisitions is so high that there are a lot of "companies" working on marginal ideas---ideas that might be big, or they might not, often depending on factors beyond founder knowledge. And at this point I think VC's have to own the responsibility for investing in a high-risk industry.

Have you heard of svpply before? (I have not). Now you have. This is what this post was written for.

Developer here - If I were about to interview for a dev job at svpply I would surely find this blog post and promptly cancel my interview. No way am I going to go to work for a guy who has no experience doing what he is tasked to do. This is kinda scary.

Every CEO has no idea what they're doing the first time they're a CEO. Most don't know it. Many won't know it even after the been a CEO for years.

If I was applying for a job at svpply, I'd be happy that CEO knows what he doesn't know: it's much better then someone thinking they know everything and not having a clue.

Another developer here -- I already like the guy. Assuming he's not an ass in real life, I'd happily work for him (if I was looking for work).

Then working at a startup for a first-time founder is definitely not for you, and probably not any startup. Which is OK — different people thrive in different environments and different risk/reward levels. You should be thanking this guy for helping you understand where your tolerance lies before you got snookered by somebody less candid.

Different people respond differently. Maybe his post will work in helping the right candidates to self select in, while others select out.

I'd love to work for him. There is an opportunity for me to learn what he is learning, and to even help with ideas and researching.

He is ultimately doing exactly what he wants to be doing and from the looks of it he is working very hard at solving the issue of not knowing.

I would happily work for this guy. Seems like an opportunity to be both a programmer and help out with operations too. Sounds fun.

I have no idea why someone would post something like this, and I can only attribute it to complete lack of responsibility and quite frankly: lack of common sense. Do you want your company to fail? Do you want it to perform 2% less than before? Because that's what you are doing right now.

I haven't met the guy, but now I like him. And I am pulling for him. So he has accomplished at least that.

And don't worry, his investors knew that he had no idea what he was doing when they wired him the money. If they didn't, it's their own fault. At least he knows what he doesn't know, which is more than I can say for most people.

F--- that. He approaches his position with humility, an understanding of what he doesn't know, and a desire to learn it. Instead of reveling in whatever success his startup has had, he's candidly looking forward to learn what he needs to grow his business.

Which he should do in private.

I simply disagree. I believe that good companies will head in this direction of transparency. We all know that all humans have faults, and acknowledging them upfront goes a long way with some like myself.

TBH, you sound like my 75 yr old father that ran a $2B business for the last 23 years, and I guess I hope that attitude goes away with our elders.

Puzzling, you make it sound like running a $2B business for 23 years is a bad thing.

I think it takes some guts to admit publicly the self doubt that every founder probably struggles with at one point or another. So many people out there are documenting their successes and triumphs or maybe doing post postmortems on their mistakes. It's a refreshingly different and honest perspective.

Do you honestly believe a single person is going to stop using svpply because they read that the founder / ceo is realistic about the challenges coming his way?

I have no idea, and that's my point. I think it will have unforseeable effects. Interaction with future business partners, friends, talks with possible employees who read it and decide not to apply. Everything is coloured from now on.

I agree its impossible to know for certain what effects this will have, but I definitely dont think they will all be negative.

Its a slow transition but its becoming acceptable for business to not operate as if they were big brother, and not all communication needs to be double speak, sure the CEO of goldman & sachs isnt going to get away with a blog post like this, but a young bookmarking startup, the only negative reactions are from people saying "this isnt the done way", with actual reason for it being negative.

Yea, the illusion that celebrities are perfect needs to die. It dates back to the days of "legacy" PR which was based on controlling the meesage. Welcome to the PR 2.0 age (one name for it).

you cannot make the argument that unforseeable effects are patently bad. You're contradicting your terms, and arguing that you have an inkling that it would be bad, rather than, possibly, good.

Risk is bad in business, anything unforseeable should be avoided. Do you really want to stake the success of your business on luck?

You say "Risk is bad in business", here, on a forum dedicated to startups? Where our conversation hinges around venture capital investments and quit your day job gambles?

Yeah, some, perhaps even many, risks get you sunk. On the other side of the coin, nothing we discuss here would exist if people didn't take risks with their businesses.

The world would be so different if no-one took risks. I daresay we wouldn't be making tools, have a knowledge of agriculture, or even have spread out of Africa.

So are you saying that leaving risks unspoken means they don't exist? The risks in this case are there regardless of whether the guy talks about them or not.

Despite the downvotes, I actually think this comment is quite a useful viewpoint. Posting something like this is a risky thing to do, and I'd be curious to know either in this situation down the road or other similar ones whether this gambit pays off. Does the goodwill-via-brutal-honesty outweigh potential loss of consumer/employee confidence?

it isn't smart for a ceo to be publicly open about these weaknesses, but it is brutally honest, and i respect that. you may gain more than you lose from this post, but in general i have found that confidence in your ability to get it done and figure it our means everything, and that telling people you don't know what you are doing creates FUD in an organization.

He appears to be supremely confident in his ability to get it done. He's just admitting he doesn't have a lot of experience, and doesn't know exactly how it's going to play out.

If you're bald you don't get dates by pretending you're not bald... you get dates by not caring that you're bald.

This is running a startup.

"He just summed up the last 3 yrs of my life" said a friend and fellow entrepreneur. So true, so true.

Every CEO was new to the job at some point. So was every founder. What he's saying is no mystery to any of us entrepreneurs. He just happened to have his entry picked up on HN ;-)

(Not to diminish what he wrote, of course - cheers to his honesty!)

I've met Ben a few times in New York City. He's a very level-headed, honest guy. This blog post speaks wonders about his character. We need more people like Ben in our industry and fewer people that write blog posts trying to blow smoke up their own ass.

It'll be interesting to see if the next round of investors bring up this blog post.

Its not really a surprise that when doing something you've never done before, your a little lost. Thats normal.

But the buying public dont want to hear that. It bursts their bubble about CEOs.

Investors are smart. If they do bring up this post, I imagine it'll be in the context of a "so how much have you learned about being a CEO in the past year?" question.

To be fair, the buying public isn't reading that post. Also, CEOs as a group already get a pretty bad rap for wage disparity and dishonesty.

I think thenpost was courageous ansnsmart.

Aren't bubbles bad?

Leadership is about managing other people's panic attacks, as well as yours.

This epitomizes the problem with fresh-out-of-school "founders" who view their startup as some sort of a post-grad experience. The guy mentally still is in a high school, but is supposed to be a responsible adult running a company. Every businessman has challenges running their business, but not every challenge is something that has to be known publicly. Business is supposed to be ran from the quiet office, not from the confessional booth.

If I would be an investor in this guy's company, I'd be really pissed off.

No one so self-aware that they can openly discuss their shortcomings and their fears is "mentally still in high school".

Discussing them openly does have consequences, though. Especially for those following you who may not see it in the same light. As shown in the comments of this thread many are vicious against it and see it as weakness. In my experience, though, those who do share the same frame of mind as the OP (Many of whom are very successful leaders) see it as a strength.

So I partially agree in that perhaps it's wise to keep it to close confidants I disagree that this is something that needs to be rallied against.

It's lonely at the top in a startup. Figuring out where to go can destroy you if you let it. It's like guiding a ship through a thick fog (The doubt) and the only thing getting you through it is the lighthouse (Your determination to never give up and belief in the idea) and the skills you've developed to steer the ship away from the rocks to get to the lighthouse. I'd doubt anyone's ability to get through that if they weren't unsure and constantly questioning themselves. Over-confidence is the killer of great performance.

The product is great. All is else is secondary. For christ's sake the guy has Zach Klein on speed dial, they'll figure things out.

As as Svpply user, this only makes me want to root for them more. But to be fair, if I were a Svpply employee, my confidence in his vision of the company might waver a tiny bit.

It's worth noting that one of his actual investors doesn't look pissed off at all, but is understanding and pleased with Ben's self awareness:


Another developer here - I found the post honest and refreshing. Will soon apply for a job at Svpply.

And ironically, they're currently down because they forgot to renew their domain.

Works for me.

Best of luck Ben, I know you'll make it. You're awesome bud.

I'd love to hear PG's take on this.

At least the site itself confirms the CEOs statements - http://svpply.com/search/products/a%20ceo%20who%20knows%20wh... :)

Seriously though, refreshing to hear someone be so honest about what we all go through. Who didn't have panic attacks when they first started out?

Bait and switch article of the year. If I was linked to svpply, I would give him a phone call and a stern conversation would commence.

If you were linked to them in any significant way, wouldn't you already know this? I'm sure his co-founders know he's inexperienced, investors certainly should, so it's probably not a surprise to any of them.

I do appreciate the humility and openness.

Bubble Alert!

Nothing says bubble more than this:

A guy with no experience, no vision (at least none he's shared -- perhaps the entire article is some kind of viral PR experiment), gets funded!

Nah. 500k investment for a product as great as Svpply is fine. And Ben has loads of vision, he created the site!

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