Lessons Learned: Startups are Hard

Abhi Ashutosh is a Junior at NYU CAS studying Computer Science, Business, and Math. He is the co-founder of Kipin Hall, President of TEDxNYU, and on the E-Board of Tech@NYU and HashtagNYU. His love of tech, design, and building has led him down the path of entrepreneurship.

Startups are hard. Starting a company today is like starting a band was 20 years ago: Everyone does it, but few really do it.

Due to media frenzy over yet another startup with a multi-billion-dollar valuation, we often miss out on the insane amount of work behind the scenes needed for such success. Companies like Snapchat, WhatsApp, and Oculus gain multi-billion-dollar valuations in a matter of years - a timeframe that until now was unheard of. Slack, a popular team collaboration tool that many tech startups use today recently raised a $120M round at a $1B+ valuation. This - all from an 8 month old startup.

Success like this doesn’t come overnight, no matter how glorified and immediate we make it out to be in popular culture and press. Behind the curtain is constant, dedicated, and strategic work over years. For example, Stewart Butterfield, the founder of Slack, previously founded Flickr and sold it to Yahoo for a reported $35M. He’s a seasoned entrepreneur with a knack for getting great results and a track record of success. He and his team have reportedly been working around the clock to create and sell a platform that people love and enjoy using.

These grand reports of success mask the incredible amount of work that goes into creating them. Entrepreneurship reminds me of an iceberg: what you don’t see is the 90% of the effort below the surface.

The launch of my startup, Kipin Hall, in February at NYU, Harvard, iTunes U and a few other schools, lead to an incredible 60,000+ students on the platform and was seen by many as an “overnight” success. This is simply not the case.

Sai, my co-founder, and I first met through Tech@NYU DemoDays, where I was showcasing a redesign of NYU Albert. We met and bonded over a mutual desire to fundamentally change software used in colleges. It was over the next 2 months that we bounced around ideas before eventually starting and working full time on Kipin Hall.

We first began the process of creating the platform in the late summer of 2013. Late nights and long days of coding, designing, iterating, and debugging were common. There were a few days when one of us would simply lose track of time and forget to eat a meal for the entire day. A few times, I had to stop working for a few days as my hands were aching from cranking out code non-stop.

After creating something we were happy with and confident that students and professors would be happy to use, we set out to validate it. During the fall semester, we ran a private beta with over 2000 students and 17 professors to improve the platform day after day, week after week, sometimes staying up all night to complete that one feature that would get the next class on board.

Each week, we would meet a different set of students to collect feedback about what worked well and what could be improved. Taking what we learned over the entirety of the fall semester beta, we quickly added new features, redesigned the entire platform to better fit how professors and students were using it, and launched mobile apps for iOS and Android. This - all in a matter of weeks to get ready for our launch in February. Neither of us had much of a winter break.

Even still, as we move forward with the business, launching new products for community colleges and high schools, and competing in various competitions, outsiders only see the results of our work and not the work itself. It’s easy for someone to simply overlook the countless all-nighters, meetings, and personal sacrifices made in order to achieve what we have.

Working full time on a startup while also balancing school and a myriad of other activities has been a challenge. Often, I stayed up all night or worked on 3-4 hours of sleep for multiple consecutive nights, to complete an important feature or finish a marketing campaign I had been on a roll with, while finishing homework or preparing for a midterm the next morning. Many times I seriously considered quitting it all. Why give up so much of your social life, have to abandon side projects, and take time away from the beautiful simplicities of college life?

Despite the hardships of starting a startup, there is so much to look forward to.

I can confidently say that the journey of starting several companies has been one of the most rewarding and fun times of my life. When else can you take charge of your life and work, do what you love most in the world, and create value for many people? Creating a startup means being at the forefront of the world with the incredible opportunity to create new solutions that define the future working with others who are as crazy smart, passionate, and motivated.

Looking back now, I am thankful to all those who challenged me, made me work that extra little bit harder, and stayed with me through the toughest of days. Collectively, you’ve made me a better entrepreneur and person for it.

To be successful, you must really live it all - the good, the bad, and the ugly. Startups are not as glamorous as they seem, but that shouldn’t diminish your passion and interest in starting one. It’s a crazy amount of hard work, but seeing change, progress, and making a real difference in the world makes it all worth it.