Are you building a small business or a startup?

Note: This blog post first appeared in an edited form at Forbes.com.

In 2012, I officially left my rapidly-growing, profitable small business to launch a tech startup with a huge vision and zero salaries. Why did I do this? For me, it came down to the huge differences between a small business and a startup.

First off, the difference between these two company types is in their top objectives. Small businesses are driven by profitability and stable long-term value, while startups are focused on top-end revenue and growth potential. Steve Blank’s three-minute definition provides great insight.

And why did I quit? Early this year, I got the opportunity to meet Mark Cuban, Kevin Plank, and Scott Case, who asked me a classic question with a special motive: “What do you want out of your life in five years?” I knew how Cuban and Plank had made eight-figure companies in their 20’s, so I said “30 million dollars,” thinking it would impress them. Instead, Plank said, “That’s a terrible goal!”

That remains the best piece of business advice I have ever gotten. Instead of focusing on great products and huge customer bases, I was too focused on dollar amounts — a small business mentality instead of a startup mentality. I spent the rest of the weekend working with Case on new business models and products, and left these meetings with a grand new business idea. My startup journey led me to LabDoor, where we use dietary supplement testing to help consumers choose safe, effective products.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with starting your entrepreneurial career with a small business. Building a solid financial base will help create a longer personal financial runway for future startup ventures. Also, establishing a successful small business can build credibility and networks through the business community that will be hugely valuable when launching a startup that requires outside Angel and VC investments. However, be careful not to get too comfortable with a steady paycheck.

How do you decide which one is for you? Ask yourself, what is your tolerance for risk? What is your tolerance for failure?

My advice – no matter where you are in your life, it is a great exercise to stop everything and visualize your absolute top-end potential. It’s the kind of brainstorming you did as a kid, when you imagined being the President or, even better, an astronaut.

Start by deciding the biggest problem in the world that you want to solve.  Develop your ideal solution to this problem, and then invite your trusted friends and family to poke holes in it. Iterate until you’ve got an awesome idea. If you can build a great team around your awesome solution, now you can stretch one foot into the world of startups.

Finally, determine your top objective. Is your long-term goal to build a nest egg or make a dent in the universe?

What do you want out of your life in five years?

Blogging for yourself

The idea of writing in a journal seems like a quaint or juvenile pursuit, the domain of Moleskine-toting hipsters or angst-ridden teenagers. More recently, this style of writing has been co-opted by the startup culture as a part of a ‘content strategy’ to ‘build brands’ and ‘acquire early adopters’.

For me, writing was truly a personal project. I put over 40,000 words into a word processor before even considering a WordPress theme for a blog or a distribution method for my content.

I write for three reasons:

  • First, for nostalgia. It’s the same reason why I’ve saved every version of my one-page pitch for LabDoor. It’s fun to look back on my vision for the company on the day the concept was conceived. During a time where I didn’t stop to consider a name for this future venture, and instead furiously keyed in the words that described the company I wished existed.
  • Second, for introspection. I used to have weaknesses as an entrepreneur. I still do, but I also did then. The best way that I’ve found to become a stronger leader and entrepreneur is to diligently study the strategy and actions of my past self and unmercifully play Monday Morning Quarterback against myself.
  • Finally, for posterity. There’s a chance that current and aspiring entrepreneurs could learn something from my short, but eventful startup life. It would be a shame to see my past failures wasted without turning into a teachable moment.

So how does an entrepreneur working over 100 hours a week find time to blog? It’s simple – just wait until the words force themselves out of your head, and rush to a tape recorder or word processor to record your thoughts. Forcing yourself in front of a blank screen or notebook on a daily basis is a fool’s errand. Good writing cannot be summoned on demand. But you’ll be amazed how quickly 1,000 words on fundraising pour out of you during a stressed hour between two crucial VC pitches.

The most important thing about blogging as an entrepreneur (or investor for that matter) is not to let elecution get in the way of execution. The grammar, sentence structure, or word choice matters little. Just get the words on paper, or into bits and bytes. I also rarely use my first 10-12 hours of daily energy to write in my startup journal. My best writing instead often comes during the last 1-2 ‘wind-down’ hours between work and sleep, sometimes fueled by a half-bottle of wine.

The key to great writing is to write for yourself. Be excessively honest. Save the hype for your next TechCrunch interview. Just record your thoughts, watch them evolve, learn from your mistakes, and most importantly, keep building a company worth writing about. With a great story, the words will write themselves.

3X Startup Founder. Love Science & Startups.

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