“Unconsciously, everyone expects a startup to be like a job,” says Paul Graham, programming language designer, author, and venture firm partner. “It explains why people [in startups] are surprised…and why the surprises are so extreme.”

Graham’s recent post, What Startups Are Really Like, talks about the surprises in startups. He sent an email to all the business founders who had been funded by his venture firm Y Combinator, asking what things had surprised them in their startup.

Over 100 responded and their lists were summarized into frequently recurring patterns, including:

2. Startups take over your life — “I didn’t realize I would spend almost every waking moment either working or thinking about our startup.”
4. It can be fun — “The best way to put it might be that starting a startup is fun the way a survivalist training course would be fun…”
6. Think long-term — “For the vast majority of startups that become successful, it’s going to be a really long journey, at least 3 years and probably 5+.”
12. It’s hard to get users — “I had no idea how much time and effort needed to go into attaining users. ”
13. Expect the worst with deals — “Deals fall through. That’s a constant of the startup world.”
19. Things change as you grow — “Your job description … is completely rewritten every 6-12 months.”

Says Graham, “These are supposed to be the surprises, the things I didn’t tell people. What do they all have in common? They’re all things I do tell people.

The answer to the puzzle is that our prior experience in business is our jobs — working for someone else. Being a founder of a startup is orders of magnitude beyond our experience and ability to imagine. Despite our preparation, we can’t believe it is as intense as others tell us, hence we are surprised.

So, go to Paul Graham’s site and read this essay, What Startups Are Really Like, and think about what surprised these other founders. Print it out, and stick it up near your desk where you can re-read it often. Take the advice to heart.

My thanks to my co-editor Sara Prentice Manela for sending this essay my way.

Steve Lange
Palo Alto Software