The Start Up Maze Figure 1 - The Startup Maze

While I was out running a few weeks ago I was thinking about working with startups. I’ve worked with quite a few over the last ten years or so. Some were well funded, some were not. Some are still around and successful, some are not. Some didn’t even launch. Some I worked with for long periods, some for only months or a few weeks at a time.

When people ask what it’s like working at a startup I often struggle to explain. But while running I had a thought:

Working at a startup is a bit like trying to navigate a maze that has many exits, each representing their own reward and each with more than one way of reaching them.

You have no map of the whole maze, only a list of possible exits and maps of specific routes to some of the exits that others have successfully reached. But those maps have been drawn from memory and are often incomplete or just wrong.

Dead-ends, wrong turns, retracing steps and even circling around again and again in the same spot are all to be expected.

The challenge is to find your own path to the best possible exit for your business, in the most efficient way.

The route most trodden and most well mapped by others is the easiest to follow but following it results in the smaller rewards and, unfortunately, success is never guaranteed. Finding a new, or less frequented (and therefore little mapped) route is hard and far more risky, but promises bigger rewards.

Surviving the maze and reaching an exit of any kind is an achievement. Most startups don’t make it; forced to stop searching for their exit by a lack of resources, or bad timing, or a poor product / service offering. Some grind on and on for years looking, but never seem to quite get there. Some find exits that weren’t what they hoped for but settle and make do. Some find a good exit that they are really happy with, one which others would deem a failure. Some find an exit, regroup and jump straight back in to find another. One or two, every now and then, discover a route that leads to huge rewards. Every now and then…