“I feel useless. This is not our place.”
It all came out of my mouth while working with my brother.
That was a feeling we both had been sharing for long. This time I just said it out loud.
After having failed twice with our previous startups, we were trying one more time.
However, after looking for success for more than six years, this one looked like our last chance.
Little was the energy and money that remained on us. We were on the ropes.
One more time, we were desperately trying to come up with a new business idea out of thin air. And again, we’d just hit a wall.
The pieces were falling down.
It felt like we were always running in circles.
After all the energy and effort, nothing seemed to work. We felt we’d grown a lot. We’d learned many valuable skills. Yet, nothing appeared to make a difference.
And as if that wasn’t enough, we felt tremendously undervalued by people in our environment.
It was devastating.
“We need to move forward once and for all.” —that was the recurring thought for long.
Nonetheless, this time we’d reached a breaking point.
We’d always relied on the standard advice.
We followed Lean Startup, made customer discovery, interviewed people, did surveys, performed market experiments, and built MVPs.
We designed landing pages, run Facebook Ads campaigns, and used many of the usual tools and tactics.
We tried everything.
And still, nothing worked.
After lots of research and conversations, I’m sure this is more common than it seems.
It’s a real struggle for many. And if that’s your case, stay calm. You’re not alone.
Today I’m sharing what probably was the most crucial lesson we learned along more than six years of pain, suffering, and effort to get out of the blockade.
We hope it will serve you too as a first step to start making progress in the right direction once and for all.
Getting off track as soon as you start the race.
I jumped into my first independent startup venture more than eight years ago.
At that time, I’d just left Facephi, the startup I joined as its first employee and CTO.
After more than four years, a pretty nice salary, a remarkably promising product out into the market, and 3+ million in investor funding, I felt the time for a change had come.
I wanted to keep growing.
I was trying to run away from things I didn’t want in my life and desired to create my own business.
I wanted to become happier and more fulfilled, but my idea of what all that meant was pretty fuzzy by then.
Obviously, starting a path without knowing what I was seeking was a ticket for disaster.
I got captive and became a slave of my business and all the stakeholders around.
I had little time for what I enjoyed doing. I was dragged by meetings, external requests, recruiting, managing people, looking for funding, doing administrative tasks, putting out fires in general, and carrying out other unfulfilling stuff.
As a consequence, everything I did was useless. I couldn’t focus on the important, and couldn’t make any meaningful progress.
To top it all, it affected my personal life as well.
I didn’t have much time for family and friends anymore. I started doing far less physical exercise, began eating and sleeping worse, and had to renounce other goals in my life.
In every way, I neglected my health and well-being.
The case of my brother was no different.
It was evident we’d made many unfitting choices.
The exit is inward...
The least obvious part of the system, its function or purpose, is often the most crucial determinant of the system’s behavior.Daniella Meadows, Thinking in Systems
Where was I trying to get to? That’s the question I started asking myself following our last failure.
I had an intuition, but I’d never taken the time to reflect deep enough on it. I must admit that, up to that point, and to some extent, I’d looked outside for answers.
I needed to find the reasons why I was doing what I was doing. So, after a profound exercise of introspection and 6+ years of hustling, I finally found out what I was searching for.
In essence, I wanted to be freer to do what intrinsically moves me.
I wanted to feel useful and, what’s more important, live ethically. I felt a deep desire to do the right thing.
That was the purpose I expected entrepreneurship to fulfill in my life. That’s what success looked like to me.
This level of clarity caused a radical shift in our way of thinking.
It was like finding a light in the middle of darkness.
Everything became pretty more evident than before. Without knowing where we wanted to get to, it was barely impossible to get to our right place.
The question is that, when everything started, I didn’t know that I didn’t know it —even though I thought I did.
It’s easy not to notice it. Society bombards you with deceptive images of success and demands you to follow them.
You know, the dream of the billion-dollar companies and the hypergrowth VC path.
But this is a dangerous trap to fall into.
We fell dragged into those fake ideals and made life-changing decisions when what we wanted for our future was still blurred in our minds.
And inadvertently, we started being driven by others’ goals.
Now, one thing was neat. Whatever new system we followed, it should deliver on what we value.
It should be meant to get more freedom to explore, learn, and create on our own terms.
It should aim to gain more room to pursue other goals and grow in other areas of our lives.
And last but not least, it should help to contribute to this world, for good.
Did I need to build a macro-business overnight for that? Of course not. There was a more sustainable path.
It doesn’t occur to us trying to lift 300 pounds in deep squats the day we go to the gym for the first time —we’d likely end up crushed in the attempt.
Before running we must learn to walk.
Yet, in business, we dare to create billion-dollar companies overnight when we’ve just gotten started, putting our own integrity at risk for it.
Now, we wouldn’t focus on developing a high-growth business. Instead, we’d make it all about growing ourselves successfully as creators.
Instead of growing a billion-dollar company, now we would focus on healthily growing our muscles to hold it —if the time came eventually.
We turned our approach inside out and pressed a key that would change the rules of the game forever.
This new mindset suddenly made many vital decisions to become evident.
Getting more freedom.
This time, we decided to grow our new venture by ourselves. Unlike previous projects, we chose to avoid toxic relationships and commitments with investors and other stakeholders that could get us off track again.
Now, with Freegrowth, we’ve come to follow the bootstrapping route.
Second, we chose to work remotely and asynchronously. We did it about a year ago and haven’t regretted ever since.
Now, we pick our work hours and no particular physical location or schedule ties us.
We toil at whatever time that better works for us, from whatever place that better fits our lives —something that, especially in the face of the current times, has proven invaluable.
Last, we chose to diversify and avoid long-term lock-in by the projects we get into. It’s our way to control risk and bring optionality into our path.
As in the stock market, these days, we strive to keep our risk portfolio balanced by combining high-risk investments with other safer options.
Here, we are the resource to invest, so we better do it wisely.
In the same fashion, we turned our attention toward the concept of liquidity.
Now, we approach our growth through small bets. We explore the terrain before anything else and make sure of the way to go before committing further.
Before getting ourselves tied to any particular commitment, we explore and try first.
We focus on experiencing what it takes and feels like to go through a given route. We try to uncover what we don’t know before moving on. That way, we cap the risk of getting into a place we don’t want to be.
There are many implications related to this.
To cite an example, consider that different types of products involve different levels of commitment. A SaaS app implies a dependency of customers on us. Among other things, it carries with it the need to deliver customer support for the long-haul.
As such, it entails a life-long responsibility.
Today, before building a product, we assess the level of commitment we want to assume.
If we consider building a software product, we ask ourselves, “Is this something we want to commit our time, money, energy, and knowledge for years?”
If the answer is no, we move on to another thing.
If we are not sure yet, maybe we’ll work on removing the uncertainty through smaller bets.
If the answer is “Hell yeah!” then well…still, in the early stages, we’ll approach it through small bets to keep the room to change course if necessary —we don’t know what we don’t know yet.
Learning and creating.
We focused on learning and creating regularly.
We made study a part of our routine. It was already there, but now we made it more prominent.
Acquiring range and depth in and out of our fields has become a habit for satisfying our curiosity and overcoming upcoming challenges.
That has proven to be game-changing as it’s giving us a more holistic vision to find and approach problems and shape better solutions. While we previously operated from the ground, now we work from a 10000-feet perspective.
On the other hand, we chose to release our work often. Previously, all our progress relied on the success of a highly uncertain software product innovation. That carried an enormous risk, and we experienced the consequences the hard way.
Now we are focused on helping and delivering value to people right from the start. We aim to shorten the feedback loop between ourselves and the outside world —though we know we still have much to improve in this area yet.
To do so, we opened the door to new forms of creation other than coding. These days, we also work on writing and producing different types of educational content.
We still build software products, but it’s something we are approaching with a mid to long-term vision —without a doubt, a more sustainable and healthy way to progress.
We found out that this also presents other crucial benefits —but that’s a topic for another time.
In essence, we’ve gone from running a sprint to running a marathon.
Doing our bit.
Going further, we chose to act with purpose right from the beginning. The primary goal of our new venture is to make our future better. We are in the pursuit of ethical progress for ourselves and our environment.
In our previous projects, we made a critical mistake.
Both internally and externally, we ignored what people and our environment needed. Or to be more precise, the commitments adopted didn’t allow us to give them all the attention they deserved.
As a result, we overlooked the adverse effects our business and solutions might bring.
From an inward perspective, on the one hand, the hyper-growth pursuit and continuous hustle led to an unhealthy work environment.
It was an unnatural way to grow. There was too much tension, and that resulted in harmful consequences for ourselves and our team.
However, this time, as described above, we decided to grow organically, avoid the shortcuts, and go one step at a time.
On the other hand, from an outwards perspective, previously, we followed what we believed the market dictated even if we didn’t care much about the problems we were solving.
We let ourselves be driven by what investors value and the maximization of instrumental criteria such as growth potential, or our personal excitement around the technical and entrepreneurial challenge.
However, sometimes this caused an emotional disconnect. Others, it led to a flawed understanding of the problems we were tackling. Often, there was a bit of both.
Now, instead, we focus on problems we genuinely care about.
As a result, with Freegrowth, we’ve committed to helping other creators be more successful.
We know creations shape the world around us. They have the power to mold our fate and are one of the primary sources of influence, for good or bad.
We understood we could significantly improve things by helping other creators like us comprehend their real power to improve our world and grow in peace with themselves, sustainably and ethically.
We believe creators are the future of the world. So together with them, we’re determined to make that future better.
It’s a very inspiring mission we are incredibly excited about. That’s a priceless asset we’re sure will pull us forward even in the hard times we’ll likely face along our journey.
Why is this better?
Knowing where you are heading and starting on the right track is essential to succeed.
Missing this point will very likely lead you to hardly reversible decisions that might get you off track for years, driving yourself into a journey of frustration and anguish.
Once you’re there, it will be pretty tricky for you to get out of the inertia, especially as time goes by.
As you invest your time, money, and energy, and adopt commitments with other stakeholders (co-founders, investors, employees…), changing course will become increasingly harder.
No doubt, you’ll possibly learn valuable lessons. Still, you’ll risk losing yourself on the road, perhaps making things worse for others along the way.
For us, it took more than six years to find out and almost got us out of the game.
You better avoid that route.
And in case you’re already there, remember you still can do yourself a favor by getting back on the right track before problems get worse, and the situation becomes even harder to revert.
Adjust your course.
As creators, we usually get blinded by the pursuit of hypergrowth.
But that is a dangerous trap to fall into. Trying to build a fast-growing business overnight will only get us broken along the way.
Where are we trying to get to? Why are we starting a business in the first place?
What you’ll likely find is that we are here to make our future better, enabling ethical progress for ourselves and our environment.
For us, that means getting increasingly more freedom to explore, learn, create, contribute, and make a difference.
It means getting more room to pursue other goals and grow in other areas of our lives.
And to that end, we should focus on growing ourselves successfully as creators, rather than any given project.
So you better be careful with the system you use to grow. The status quo pursues other goals and will only get you off your right track.
Once we got clear on this, many critical decisions became radically easier. We saw the light, got out of the blockade, and began to take steps in the right direction.
After long, we said goodbye to the frustration and became excited again for the path to come.
By following this eye-opening compass, you’ll also become thrilled about what the future holds in store for you.
No matter where you’re at in your journey, now you can start asking yourself, “why am I here? what doesn’t align with me and what I value?”.
You’ll gain more clarity and become ready to do the right thing.
And remember, what we create today will shape our tomorrow.
Are you ready to correct your destiny?