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Michael DubakovFibery founder
Essays

Startups and near-death experience

February 12, 20213 min read

Startups are hard 🐝. Nobody has a ready recipe for a successful startup. It’s like life. Nobody has a ready recipe for a fulfilling, happy and successful life neither. Few startups are successful from day one and never really struggle. Most startups do struggle and die. But I think that quite many top startups had a transformative near-death experience that changed everything and help them to find a path to success.

It’s common that near-death experience in life changes everything. Many people reported that it changed their lives. They became more focused, less distracted, more calm, less worried, more enlightened, less gloomy. In some way they feel that they just “get it”, they suddenly understand why they live, what’s important, what’s the meaning of all this.

It’s hard to wish for a near-death experience, but it can be a useful thing for a startup. If everything is kinda OK, you tend to disperse your attention: hire unnecessary people, enter unnecessary markets, add not-essential features. Eventually, it may lead to stagnation, slow growth, and the same near-death experience in the end, but with a large team, a heavier product with some boxes of technical debt, and weird customers. It is much harder to survive in this case when you are big. Significant cuts are extremely painful and can kill a company, like a complex surgery can kill a patient.

It’s much better to have this near-death experience somewhere in the beginning, like in the first 2–3 years of operations with a smaller team, lighter product, fewer markets, and fewer customers. Changes are much easier here. You can have just a few people on board and re-thing everything. You will have to focus on the most important things and cut everything else. The real problem here is to define what’s important. However, when you are close to death, your senses sharpen and there is a good chance that you will find them.

For example, you may suddenly discover that the most pressing issue is not a lack of features, but a poor onboarding process. Or you may discover that product complexity is just too high and simplify the product (a common theme). Or you may discover that you have to focus on a very narrow niche and put all effort into it. Anyway, you will have to focus. This necessity can do wonders with your life, or your company.

I think we should not be afraid of near-death experiences, but embrace them, reflect on them and rebuild the foundation of our life or our company.