The Decades Are Short But The Centuries Are Long

Labdoor is turning 10 years old this month! We’ve been through so much — moving cross-country to SF to join Rock Health, raising a seed round led by Mark Cuban, creating a passionate community of smart consumers, getting accepted into Y Combinator’s Winter 2015 class, fighting multiple lawsuits from supplement companies, raising a Series A led by Floodgate, serving tens of millions of Labdoor users, failing to raise more money, bootstrapping the business again for years, finally achieving profitability, building a new certification standard for supplements, now growing again.

When reflecting on this experience, I remembered one of my favorite blog posts ever, Sam Altman’s The days are long but the decades are short. That’s exactly how our Labdoor experience felt – busy with so many hard days of work in a row that when we finally picked our heads up to look around, a decade had already passed.

But our story is just getting started. The average age of the top 10 companies in our industry is 117 years old. The youngest company on that list is 26 years old. We’re still the new kid on the block; we’ve grown up, but we still have our whole life in front of us.

When you’re ten years old, life feels infinite. We’re learning to embrace this feeling and look forward to everything that we get to do next. When we zoom out to our whole lifetime, we know we’re just getting started. The decades are short but the centuries are long.

Here’s my advice to anyone struggling through the first decade or two (TL;DR: Keep going!):

The first decade is the hardest.

  • Starting your first startup is like creating a garage band.
    • Some bands (and startups) go straight from a garage to stardom.
      • But most spend years trying different ideas, genres, and people without breakout success.
    • The only way you’re going to survive the grind is if you love the game.

One specific quote got me through a lot of tough days at Labdoor – “The Gap” by Ira Glass:

  • This took me longer to figure out than most founders. I think I’ve deeply learned this lesson now:

Most startups die in this gap.

  • The founders who make it to the other side get an amazing prize:
    • The opportunity to share their gift and art with the world.

Startups can have exceptionally long gaps.

The best startups have to try many different paths to their mission:

  • Usually what scales to $100K or $1M in revenue doesn’t scale to $1B+.
    • There’s a lot of investor pressure to push for $1B+ even if it hurts $1M+ opportunities.

The hardest part about the startup curve is that it’s not linear:

  • What separates the best founders from the rest is what they do in the trough of sorrow:
    • Startups don’t die because they run out of money.
      • They die because founders stop fighting.
Y Combinator partners Paul Graham and Trevor Blackwell created the best graph of the startup experience.

This startup game is supposed to be hard.

  • We’re trying to disrupt 100+ year old industries and make $1B+ dollar companies from scratch.
    • “Hacks” are a great way to get featured on TechCrunch, but you have to build a real business to get to the promised land.

You’re always only a decade or two away from creating the next multi-century brand.

  • If you’re 5+ years into your startup journey, with a great product and real traction but also real blockers to growth, know that many other founders have been exactly where you are now.
  • I know how lonely and exhausting this place can be – it gets tougher to raise money from VCs, newer “hotter” startups raise more money than you, and you and your team are burning out from the initial sprint.
  • Know that it’s possible to pass these blockers and grow your startup to 10+ years old, and if you get here, you’ll get a new set of opportunities to finally achieve the biggest missions of your startup dreams.

You just have to survive long enough to succeed.

This is the Lindy Effect of startups.

  • 10 year old startups are much more likely to survive another decade vs. new startups.
    • >99% of VCs prefer the latter, but the former can be an excellent investment with the right team.

All your hard work is worth it because you’ll soon have the company of your dreams:

  1. Your business becomes a machine. Your team leaders have their own team leaders who they hired themselves. All that technical debt is finally (almost) paid off. Sales is mostly self service, except for the biggest deals. This is where startups become businesses.
  2. Your brand becomes an institution. Trust takes time. You earn it through repeated interactions with users and customers over years. And it only takes one bad experience to ruin all that work. But after a decade, your fans will forgive errors you’ve corrected and be even more loyal. This is when your brand can truly compete with last century’s leaders.

Beware: Nothing lasts forever. The hunters will become the hunted.

  • Silicon Valley has such a short memory that we forget so many incumbents are under 40 years old.
  • In a decade or two, the stars of the next generation will try to knock you off your pedestal.
    • Stay young. Stay hungry. And never forget what it feels like to struggle.

Published by Neil Thanedar

Neil Thanedar is an entrepreneur, investor, scientist, altruist, and author. He is the founder & GP of Utopic, a pre-seed biotech VC fund investing in the future of science. He is also the founder & chairman of Air to All, a 501(c)3 nonprofit medical device startup, and Labdoor, a consumer watchdog with $7M+ in funding and 20M+ users. He previously co-founded Avomeen Analytical Services, a product development and testing lab acquired for $30M+ in 2016. He has also served as Executive Director of The Detroit Partnership and Senior Advisor to his father Shri Thanedar in his campaigns for Governor, State Representative, and US Congress in Michigan.