When You are Not the Default

In Life and Startups

I have a confession to make. During the break, we’ve been watching the survivalist TV show Naked and Afraid. The show pairs up two strangers, a man and a woman, to survive for 21 days in the wilderness - naked. Each person can bring just one item. They are given a map and forced to hike several miles inland for a safe place to camp. The goal is to make it to the end, ideally as a team, but each individual can decide to “tap out” and exit the game early. After watching dozens of episodes and a lot of “tap outs”, I am the most impressed and surprised when the person with the least amount of survival experience makes it to the end. And, most of the time, that’s the woman. Some do it without fire, others survive on just one cricket and an orange -- but they make it the entire 21 days. I’m surprised because the one who survives is usually not the default expectation. 

I was struck by how much the show was similar to startups. Like in the show, there is only one goal in a startup - Make something a lot of people want [a].  If people don’t want it, it’s likely to fail. If not enough people want it, it’s likely to fail. If “want” does not translate to dollars, it’s likely a fail. And just like in the show Naked and Afraid, a common pattern emerges to predict success. This pattern includes if you don’t get shelter, it’s a likely fail; if you can’t get water, it’s a likely fail; if you can’t get the fire going, it’s likely a fail; and, if you lose your partner, it’s likely a fail. Even the most popular items that each person brings are the same - a machete and a firestarter. 

Having a default method, skills or characteristics is helpful because you can take shortcuts and not have to figure out things on your own. And that could mean life and death on a survivalist show. The reason it’s the default is because it’s worked for the vast majority of success cases. And if we are honest, the “default” extends to a certain background, gender and ethnicity. 

Just because you tick all the boxes does not guarantee success. But those that succeed often tick a lot of boxes. Investors try to pattern match and think that correlation is causation, creating funding echo chambers. Or worse, founders try to fit into the checkboxes to get funding, when their time could be spent building the business instead of trying to pass an impassable checklist. [b]

However, could success rates be better if we did not choose based on the default gender, ethnicity and background? Even my daughter asked me on Naked and Afraid why there were so many white people as participants. Was there something more inherently survivalist about white people? My guess is no, given that Homo Sapiens originated from Africa [c]

Because those who get funding are often white and male [d], those who are not white and male, are from an Ivy League or Stanford. And, if you tick only some of those boxes, you are not “the default”. You might be left left wondering if success is even available to you; and, if you are anything like me, wondering if there is something wrong with you. Representation is one of the most scalable things that can be done for an entire generation that is not white or male or a sanctioned background. If that isn’t enough, research shows that diversity returns better results. [e]

“You can’t be what you can’t see”.
Representation helps you see what you can be.

Probably the most damage of “having a default” is how the default becomes the correct and only way to do things. This impacts not only what advice is given, but also has extended to how startup advice is given. I’ve been struck by how pieces of common startup advice become as monolithic and unmoving as law and become “the default”. And like those cargo cults, you may end up trying to replicate the default ineffectively because you are not the default, you are an exception.

Oftentimes startup advice is given as if it is right or wrong when in reality advice is either good or bad. 

The most important thing in taking advice is to be aware of who is giving it, recognizing that the advice they give is relative to themselves, their background, their values and what they think they would do. [f]

Investors give the vast majority of startup advice and traditionally this has been from a white male perspective, so founders should be aware the advice is the culmination of their background, perspective and past. In these cases, founders should think about WHY investors often adhere to the default advice. Thinking about WHY the common advice exists can be very helpful to proving the underlying concern the investor has and address that, turning your deficit into an advantage. 

Below are some of the most common pieces of advice that have become default “checkboxes” with the reasons why this “checkbox” exists, what investors are looking for, along with exceptions to these “checkboxes”:

  1. Solo founder - The amount of progress that can be made when two people rowing in the boat is just more. There is so much work to be done in a startup that two can just go a lot faster. With having a founder, I think an early stage startup is like being in a row boat, if you can get one or two extra rowers with you in the boat you will go faster, and speed and agility will be the most important advantage. [g] Exception: Julie Wainwright CEO and founder of The Real Real started intentionally solo, honestly no one can keep up with her.

  2. Non tech founder- In general, to build a tech startup, you should have someone who is technical as a partner. It’s so much faster if that technical person is an equal partner.  I liken it to wanting to write a book but you don’t know how to write. If you were to write it yourself that could be the fastest as all you need to do is manage yourself, least amount of outside dependencies. The next best case is to have a co-author with you. In many ways you may go slower from coordinating but at the same time you can get more done.  And then finally the slowest option - get a ghost writer. The ghost writer will be slower as you have to tell them and then they have to write, then there are rounds of feedback. This is akin to getting an outsourced development team.  Exceptions: Katrina Lake from StitchFix. Kevin Rose outsourced the initial build of Digg.

  3. Part time - There is so much work to be done in a startup. Growth does not happen without a lot of work being put into it (just like starting a fire), if you are doing it on the side, imagine how much further you could get if you could focus on it. I have seen all the other types of founders get funding, but I have yet to see a part-time founder get funding as often. The successful exceptions I can think of have been Elon Musk and Jack Dorsey, but neither of them started both companies at the same time, and they are both white, male, in Silicon Valley and pedigreed.  

  4. Silicon Valley - You must be in Silicon Valley to be successful. It’s like trying to create a Hollywood blockbuster movie not in Hollywood. The ecosystem is incredibly helpful in not only getting the right networks but to get the compounding effects of a network.  The serendipitous connections will reinforce the individual nodes in a network, and in some ways make the network feel smaller, building trust faster. Exceptions: We’ve seen blockbuster companies come from outside of Silicon Valley: Wisconsin (EPIC), Utah (Qualtrics, Domo), Michigan (Duo Security, StockX), China (Alibaba, Pingduoduo, …), India (Flipkart, Inmobi…), LATAM (Mercado Libre, Rappi)…

  5. Pedigree - I’ve been in meetings where they say “oh this talented engineer from <insert FAANG company>” and I think “how do you know they are talented”? And that is where the association goes a lot further. Underneath the association is the adage: “It doesn’t matter what seat you take on a rocket ship, just get on the rocketship”. The reason for this is you will see what success, scale and growth looks like. It’s hard to set a target if you haven’t seen or felt what is achievable. Exceptions: Plangrid founder and CEO Tracy Young was from a state school , and Mark Lore, founder of Diapers.com and Jet.com, was from a small liberal arts college with no FAANG companies on their resumes.

  6. Momentum - Traction can exist without momentum, but momentum cannot exist without traction. It’s difficult to see momentum and by the time you see it, it’s too late for investors to invest, so they look at the next best thing - traction. Growth is like building a fire. It takes a lot of attempts from the team, but once the spark happens it grows itself, and hopefully you move from stoking the fire with oxygen and tinder to containing it - that is when you have product market fit. Exceptions: It is rare to find exceptions here, but most common are hardtech stratgic acquisitions such as Siri, Apple’s default voice search.

    Even building momentum is not law, but definitely a marker of every successful startup.

If you are a solo founder (#1), have no tech founders (#2) or part time (#3) you will need to show that you can make just as much progress as a team that is working on it full-time with tech founders and a full founding team. It’s not insurmountable, but the faster a team moves the more attempts they get to be able to find product market fit.

If you are not in Silicon Valley (#4) and or lack pedigree (#5), lean into your traction and momentum. Momentum is a way to show the compounding effects of your startup can be greater than a network, ecosystem, or background.

Privilege is assumed for the default
Everyone else, privilege has to be earned 

If you lack traction/ momentum (#6) (or if you have a common idea like photo sharing), you will need to prove that you are the team to tackle the problem because your background gives you a unique insight or advantage. This happens a lot in hard sciences as well as B2B companies. You might have worked in the procurement department and seen how slow and complex the processes were where technology could help. Or you could have access to distribution that no one else has. Whatever it is, now is the time to put that to good use. 

With each checkbox, the founders listed as an exception would have to lean into the other areas to compensate for the other “checkboxes”.

Nothing is wrong with the above common advice, but sometimes because you are not the default, this common advice may not work for you. So, if you are not the default as a founder, know (1) that oftentimes there isn’t a right answer and (2) the right answer is usually within you. Hold onto those founder stories because success is the exception, not the default. [h] And because you are not the default, you were born to be the exception. Use it to your advantage.

Your success journey will look different because you aren’t the default, you are the exception.

If you are an investor / mentor, be wary on what and how you give advice. If you are adhering to some of the “checkboxes” above, think is it *really* a requirement for everyone? Or worse, is there harm when giving this advice? Yes, some founders cannot be full time because of H1Bs or they are sole providers of family. Investors should consider other ways a startup can succeed because the way to be a successful investor is to invest in something undervalued, overlooked and dare I say - not the default.

📏 Your Edge

Dr. Laura Huang, a Harvard Business Professor professor, has written a book based on her research on founders who did not fit the default and how they turned it to their advantage. Her research started with how female founders get asked prevention questions over promotion questions that led to female founders yielding less funding.

Uncanny Timing: Tracy Chou, CEO and founder of Block Party penned a wonderful piece on how she does have a great pedigree (2 engineering degrees from Stanford, early employee at Pinterest / Quora), but not being white or male is not enough. She is handed this default startup advice can be harmful for those that go against it and follow it. Silicon Valley’s Co-founder Mantra

💔 RIP Tony Hsieh 

For those who have not heard, the previous CEO and founder of Zappos, Tony Hsieh, passed away last Friday 11/26. I have never met Tony, just saw him at conferences on stage or went to his talks, but his work has paved the way for many founders and leaders. He was one degree away from many of my startup friends. 

When Tony started LinkExchange and took over Zappos, it was before YC, before Twitter, before any social media to find out how to even create a startup and run a company. He was a trailblazer on not just the business model, but also company building. He wrote a book about mission, passion and profits - Delivering Happiness. As young founders, it helped us form a lot of our thinking on building an organization. He was passionate about delivering happiness for his customers, employees and any person he came in contact with, just read the tributes. I remember seeing him speak about the book and he said, ask anyone why they are doing something. After asking “why?” about 3-4 times, he said you find out that they want to “be happy.” That’s what he wanted to do - deliver happiness.

My favorite tribute is this one by Paul Bradley Carr. Paul had a complicated relationship with Tony being a tech journalist and Tony being an investor in his company. You can tell a lot about a person by their friends. It seems with Tony you could tell a lot about him by how he treated his frenemies. He had a deeper view than most on friendship.

And he was not the default. He was an Asian-American with a hard to pronounce last name, just like me. He had black hair and almond-shaped eyes, just like me. And because of that he paved the way for more people that look like him to be successful, just like me.  

Thank you Tony for helping me see what I can be. 

💔 RIP Tony 🙏

If you are not the default, the world needs you now more than ever ❤️ 

Special thanks to Jen Liao and Karen Hong for reading drafts of this.

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NOTES: [a] Adapted from the YC motto “Make something people want”. [b] Most female founders I speak with spoke about how they would change their hairstyle to be more male during fundraising. One female founder even A/B tested her hairstyle between curly and straight hair and found out that straight hair worked better for her during her Series C fundraise. [c]Introduction to Human Evolution [d] Diversity as $uperpower [e] Because the vast majority of funded founders and VC investors have been white and male, it becomes a compounding problem. First their access to deal flow is their personal network which is likely less diverse, then their deal flow becomes their portfolio companies, which become extensions of the founders which are usually white and male. And of course it becomes a pipeline problem because they created a non-diverse pipeline for themselves. And before we get upset at VCs I ask us to look introspectively to ourselves, excluding family members, who do we seek out professional and personal advice? How much by race, gender, orientation and religious beliefs are really diverse?  [f] At the same time you should also look at their incentives and why they are giving you the advice. I recognize the irony of giving advice about taking advice. Either way you should be wary of even advice in this article and newsletter.  😬.  [g] There are studies that prove solo founders tend to be more successful, but VCs still invest in teams because of the sheer amount of work a startup takes. [h] I fully recognize the counter argument is because success is already so hard, it’s about increase your chances and follow what has been successful in the past. But startups are about the future, you can’t build the future by looking backwards.