Stop trying to build the next unicorn

A drawing of a cartoon man pointing upwards

Heads up! This post was written in 2014, so it may contain information that is no longer accurate. I keep posts like this around for historical purposes and to prevent link rot, so please keep this in mind as you're reading.

— Cory

So, you're building the next big thing? You say you're going to make millions and have a fancy office building out in the valley? That's cool. By the same odds we'll both be rich, because I'm holding tonight's winning lotto ticket.

Your idea probably won't be the next big thing #

It's true. The odds are against you. Whatever you're building probably won't be the next Facebook or Twitter, but that doesn't mean you can't make a living doing what you love.

It sounds discouraging, but I'm really just trying to bring you down to earth. Stop reading all those articles about multi-million dollar funding rounds and IPOs. They're exciting. They trigger ambition. But they're not realistic. You might as well be reading about last night's lottery winner.

You're probably well aware that most startups fail. It's a vicious world out there with entrepreneurs trying desperately to get their ideas funded. They have an exit strategy even before they have a product. Building something great has taken a backseat to trying to become a billionaire.

Success may not be what you think it is #

When someone says "success", what do you think of? Is it the money? The fame? The idea of retiring young? Is it having big houses and little cars? What type of lifestyle would you live if you were "successful" by your own standard?

When we're young, we're taught to aim for the sky, but success doesn't have to be so glamourous. In fact, rich people aren't as happy as you think:

If we can get people just a little bit more informed, so they know that getting the $20 million or $200 million won’t necessarily bring them all that they’d hoped for, then maybe they’d concentrate instead on things that would make the world a better place and could help to make them truly happy.

So what makes you truly happy?

Less is more #

What if you could live in a comfortable house, have a nice car, work decent hours, enjoy the work you do, have a healthy budget for your day-to-day needs, and be able to spend more time with your family and friends? The average person would kill to have this life. (If you didn't know that already, you must be a very fortunate person.)

The truth is, your success is based on many things that are important to you, not just your work. When you put too much focus on one thing, everything else ends up on the back burner. Working too much can ruin your relationship and even cause you to die young. I wouldn't consider that to be very successful.

So how do you reach that balance yet still be successful? There's nothing wrong with aiming high—just don't aim too high.

There's no shame in a lifestyle business #

Some people don't like the term lifestyle business. If you're not familiar with it, a good definition is:

A business that is set up and run by its founders primarily with the aim of sustaining a particular level of income and no more; or to provide a foundation from which to enjoy a particular lifestyle.

That's exactly what I started in 2008, albeit unknowingly. Of course, at the time, I was hoping my service would take off and be the next big thing—but it wasn't. It didn't make me millions of dollars and it didn't attract a group of check-writing VCs. But it also didn't crush my dreams. Rather, it enlightened me.

You see, I ended up starting a sustainable business that's been paying my bills since 2008. I live the life I mentioned above, and I consider myself reasonably successful. I have a great service that I enjoy running, awesome users that I love helping, and there's nobody I have to report to at work. I take most weekends off and have plenty of time for family. In fact, I'll be celebrating my honeymoon for a week in the Caribbean next month. Life is good running a lifestyle business.

Does that mean I won't reach a bit higher with my next project? Absolutely not. I'd love to start another service that's just as (or more) successful than what I'm doing now, but I'm not going to let it dictate my life. The truth is, I'm happy running a lifestyle business. I'm not trying to build the next unicorn and, unless you like being disappointed, neither should you. You'll find much more success in launching something smaller.

If you're stuck with that "go big or go home" mentality, my advice to you is figure out what you're good at, find a niche you enjoy, and start solving a problem. Grow your idea slowly but steadily, be good to your users, and stop worrying about becoming a millionaire. With your focus on building something you believe in, you'll have a much better chance of success and you just might end up with a business that will be around for years to come. That's way better than most startups do.

And who knows? Maybe your idea will take you to the top. But if it doesn't, at least you'll still be doing something you love.