When I read business news today, I typically see three kinds of stories: hot startups taking industries by storm, established giants plowing ahead, or massive business failures and catastrophes.
What I don’t see is what happens along the way to most entrepreneurs most of the time. The daily struggles and triumphs entrepreneurs face rarely make headlines, but as an entrepreneur and cofounder of a public company, I find that those are the stories and lessons that are the most valuable.
This is the reason I’m co-hosting a new podcast called Zero to IPO, which discusses what it’s like to be in the trenches of building a company from idea to IPO. In each episode, Joshua Davis–cofounder of Epic Magazine–and I chat with founders about different stages of a company’s growth, and tackle their challenges from all sides.
In our first episode, we sat down with a serial entrepreneur turned investor who needs no introduction: Marc Andreessen. Marc highlighted how building a successful company takes far more than a big idea–it takes a solid understanding of the reality and journey ahead. Here are four lessons Marc and I learned throughout our career paths that every aspiring entrepreneur can take to heart.
1) You don’t have to have a new idea to succeed, because there are none
According to Andreessen, there’s no such thing as a new idea. (Even that statement isn’t original–it’s often attributed to Mark Twain.) Take television and electric scooters. TVs were commercialized in the 1930s, and electric scooters, while they appear to be having another moment right now, in the 1990s. Back then, there was a widespread belief that they were innovative and new.
But one of the first concepts for a TV was recorded in the 1800s as a mechanical, spinning block with images. And if you Google search “autoped,” you’ll see the first electric scooters existed in 1915, over 100 years before Andreessen Horowitz invested in Lime. Andreessen went so far to say that if you think you’ve found a new idea, you probably don’t know the history.
He also argues that the world can only handle a limited number of new ideas per year. That might sound discouraging, but it shouldn’t be. A brand-new idea isn’t the only way to find success. Many entrepreneurs find success by putting a new spin on an old concept. That’s what eBay did: Critics shook their heads at the idea (selling Pez dispensers online, really?), but eBay’s founders saw an opportunity to take a concept that’s been around since the beginning of civilization and transform it in the new world of peer-to-peer, global e-commerce.
2) You have to be willing to fight for your idea
Andreessen also shared a common dilemma entrepreneurs face: They could launch something new in an existing market where there’s high demand, but more competition; or they could launch an entirely new category where there’s no competition, but where they need to build the demand.
He explains that it doesn’t matter which way you look at the issue, “the grass is brown on both sides of the fence.” If your idea is challenging current conceptions, you have to fight to convince people they want what you’re selling.
That was the backdrop for how I cofounded Okta (and why Andreessen Horowitz jumped in to invest). We were taking on a market that had very little competition and no business precedent–the cloud wasn’t new, but identity management in the cloud was still in its infancy.
Andreessen said he was laughed at (multiple times!) for investing in Okta. His peers would say, “don’t you know that ‘real’ companies will never go to the cloud?” But since an entrepreneur’s job is to build products and services that work in a new architecture, we bet on a cloud-first future. At that point, we didn’t worry about which side of the fence we were on. We believed in its potential, so we started working.
3) Success requires 100% commitment
Growing up, we often think that failure isn’t an option. In reality, however, you swing and miss, and as Andreessen put it, you almost always have more than one swing. But when the right pitch comes, you have to go all-in to hit the home run.
My own foray into failed companies started in elementary school, when I started a recycling business that went bankrupt after I sold it to my brother for a $7 profit (sorry, Mo!). I started a tennis racket restringing business in high school with a similar fate. I raised funds for an online mixed martial arts business and had to return the money to my investors. I helped start a high-tech consulting firm in South America that didn’t survive the dotcom meltdown and a national revolution. And I even wrote a business plan for a finance app to teach young kids how to save and invest, but after spending time on market research, I decided it wasn’t worth pursuing.
Through each of these experiences, I’ve learned that you have to evaluate each entrepreneurial opportunity with one question: Do I want to dedicate the next 5-10 years of my life to making it successful? You need to say a resounding “yes,” if you want any chance of success.
4) People always come first
I will be the first to say that there is no secret success formula for entrepreneurs. But one common thread is that no matter where you’re living or your circumstances, it takes time, resources, and dedication to turn an idea into a fully functioning business. I’ve learned that building a company is only 10% about the product. The rest is about the people and the market.
Andreessen puts it this way: There is no such thing as an “undiscovered genius,” because the true geniuses will attract the resources necessary to turn their ideas into reality wherever they are. They understand that the most important component isn’t product or capital–it’s the people. That starts with you.
Frederic Kerrest is the COO and cofounder of Okta. You can listen to the full episode, “Download the Future,” wherever you get your podcasts. Tune into Zero to IPO every Tuesday and check back here each week to read about the discussion on each episode.