Yesterday I heard someone quoting Paul Graham and saying that it’s easier to do hard things than it’s to do easy things. This person was referring specifically to how it’s easier to build hard startups than easy startups. The argument behind this statement is that’s easier to get yourself, employees and investors excited about solving a “hard” problem rather than something seemingly vain and superficial. Although the problem itself is harder, the entrepreneur is able to attract more resources (human, capital, etc.) to solve the problem, which in the long term increases the likelihood of success. The classic example of an entrepreneur that lives by this principle is Elon Musk. Thousands of the best technical people in the world work at Tesla and SpaceX because of Elon and his mission. They don’t go work there because of the pay, the perks or the cool office.
Having said so, there also seems to be a lot of startups working on delivering you brownies at 11pm and at least externally they don’t seem to have any trouble attracting talent or capital. So why should we care about building hard things rather than easier things? At the end of the day the likelihood of any of us will become Elon Musk is astronomically small.
In my opinion we should build startups that are hard to build because on the long run those are the startups that will win. Building hard startups means building strong natural monopolies, creating new markets, developing defensibility, refining network effects, being frugal, scaling fast, staying nimble, etc. Those things are hard. They take time. If you look at the data some of the best companies by market cap and profit margin have taken at least 10 years and in many case 20+ to really reach the scale for which they are known today. These companies include Netflix, Tesla, Apple, LinkedIn, Spotify, etc.
The current startup ecosystem in Silicon Valley incentives the creation of startups that can generate a quick return for VCs and founders. VCs have an obligation to their own investors and many founders want to get rich quickly. Although the venture ecosystem is absolutely phenomenal, sometimes it limits the type of companies that can be created in a reasonable time frame. Many VCs won’t invest in education or healthcare because “it’s too hard” or “it takes too long” and instead they fund companies that can be easily acquired in a couple of years. This is obviously not true of every VC but it seems to be a pattern.
Listen if startups create by doing a quick play and grabbing the attention of a couple million people then that’s great but I think that entrepreneurs can create a lot more value over the long run by building enduring companies that address fundamental problems that many people have in our societies. I would personally prefer to see those startups solving cancer, food production, or healthcare rather than figuring out the best way to deliver you a brownie at 11pm but that’s just my personal preference (: