Every Startup is a Little Bit Broken

Every startup in existence is broken in multiple ways. Anyone who tells you otherwise about their startup is either delusional, lying, or both.


In its early days, Paypal ignored thousands of customer support requests every week as angry customers piled up. When customers discovered the corporate phone number and started calling 24/7, Paypal disconnected it. They cared deeply about their customers but simply couldn’t handle that particular fire at that particular moment.


The very best startups often feel like a hot mess because they are a hot mess. Embracing this simple fact – that something important will always be broken – is a skill that every good founder develops and none is born with.


Embrace Broken Things


You can view your startup in one of two ways:

  • As a perfect creation where nothing important is allowed to be broken

  • As an imperfect creation where some important things will always be broken

The former is how most people envision their startups while the latter is how the best leaders run their startups. There are 3 reasons to subscribe to the imperfect version.


The first reason is your own sanity. The more you expect your startup to be a perfect little gem the more you are going to disappoint yourself. Important things will always be broken. If you ever want to go home, be present outside of work, sleep soundly, and endure for decades, you will have to do so while fires are burning in the background.


The second reason is your people. An employee that expects (or is being sold on) some perfect startup experience is in for a disappointing ride. Many things are amazing about the startup ride, but it sure is a messy one. Good startup employees derive satisfaction from fixing what’s broken and understand that important things being broken are an integral part of the journey.


The third reason is effectiveness. The reason Paypal ignored their massive pile of support requests is that it was the right thing to do. You don’t fix things for the sake of fixing, you fix them in order to maximize progress. You must fix the most important thing first while consciously ignoring everything else. Some things will stay broken for years. Some forever.


What Do I Fix First?


The short answer is the most important thing and only that. The longer answer is the following methodology.


Don’t fix anything besides items that fall into these 3 buckets:

  • Moral: if anything is causing damage to another human, undermines your personal values, or clearly breaks the law, fix it right away

  • People: employees come first. Unbreak things that make your people demotivated, frustrated, or ineffective

  • Goals: Anything that inhibits you from achieving your current goals must be prioritized

Thanks to Murphy's law, oftentimes you will have too many things to fix within these buckets. Don’t be tempted to fix them all in conjunction. Put your emotions aside and go sequentially based on some benefit/effort evaluation.


Be Neither Grim Nor Complacent


This outlook might seem grim at first but is quite the opposite. The sooner you accept that this is simply the nature of startups, that every startup is broken in some ways, and that the most successful startups in history were no different, the sooner you will be liberated. You will become sane again, a more effective prioritizer, and a better leader.


Now don’t get complacent. Startup success has nothing to do with fixing everything there is to fix but has everything to do with fixing the right things. Obsess over the important and consciously let go of everything else.


Let go of perfect. Let things be broken.