How My Fears Doomed My First Startup

By David Silva Smith

I loved the idea of creating a software company people would read about in the papers. I loved the idea of building software that helped millions of people around the world. However, I didn’t want to change, sacrifice, or grow to make that happen. I wanted to do what I was good at. To stay in my comfort zone and just have success rain down on me. I was so scared, I didn’t even think about the challenges I’d face in trying to build a hyper-growth massive company. Deep down I was afraid if I tried something new, it would be hard, I’d suck at it, and I’d fail.

By avoiding the uncomfortable, by staying in my comfort zone, I never gave my Startup a chance.
Coding conferences were my kind of fun!

Flashback to 2010. I was an unbelievably nerdy software engineer. I wrote code for fun. When I wasn’t writing code, I liked reading books to improve my code writing. For vacations, you are probably thinking Florida or something, right? Not me. I liked to go to software development conferences like CodeMash, devLink, Ann Arbor Day of .NET, etc. I admired code the way Picasso admired and drew inspiration from art.

I arrogantly believed if an engineer, like myself, made a great product, people would buy it.

Side Note: Now that it’s 2019, doesn’t mean I’m not still nerdy, I just don’t read software development books any more :)

I had dreams of building a startup. I was a deeply technical computer programmer. I’d developed a fascination for how computers worked at a low level and this enabled me to solve some problems that almost no other programmers could solve. When software crashed, I could load up memory dump the machine took as the software was crashing and I could determine the cause of the crash. I was building a piece of software, uncreatively named “Dave’s Debugger”, to make crash determination easy, just a few button clicks. Load up the memory dump file, click analyze and Dave’s Debugger would print out a nice message to the monitor saying why the other piece of software crashed.

I loved working on Dave’s Debugger, I dreamed of how it could help people. Unfortunately, it never stood a chance to help a single person. No one except for me ever saw this software. I focused on the technical architecture. I was proud of the software patterns I used. I was proud it could run as a windowed piece of software and from a command line, all from the same codebase! I took pride in the beautifully crafted software I’d built.

After a few late nights of coding Dave’s Debugger worked too! It helped users quickly diagnose PC blue screens.

What did I do after solving the problem? I kept working. I thought of ways to improve it technically. I thought of more features to add. I did what I loved. I coded and crafted.

I avoided what I didn’t know. I avoided what scared me.

I avoided selling my product. Heck, I even avoided telling anyone about it. My software couldn’t help anyone, not one single person, because I never shared it. I wouldn’t face my fears of talking to other users and facing their rejection of something I loved. By burrowing my head in the sand I was able to dream that my software would do great things. By burrowing my head in the sand I also doomed my software to never help a single person.

Eventually, I got tired of marveling at my technical creation and stopped work on it.

Now I share my ideas with as many people as possible.

What I wish I would have done, and what is hard for me to do now is to engage with potential customers. I wish I’d swallowed the butterflies in my stomach, ignored my sweaty palms trying to avoid dialing, and called people I’d never met before. I wish I would have grown and at least tried to figure out who hurts the most from software crashes? How do they solve that problem now? How much do they pay to solve those crashes? Who has critical software crash on them the most?

After understanding the problem I was solving it, and who I was solving it for, then I wish I’d built a beautiful solution that solved their needs. Maybe they didn’t need any software at all. Maybe they wanted an expert to come in onsite to diagnose the problem. Maybe they wanted to upload their memory dump files and have me send back the report.

I have no idea. I stayed as I was. I didn’t go outside of my comfort zone. I spoke with 0 customers, I made $0 in sales. I was the only person who ever used Dave’s Debugger.

My first startup had zero impact on the world because my fears doomed it from the start.

Thanks to Rick Mason for reading an early draft of this.