Thoughts On Hustling: Why Some Founders Win and Others Don't

By Aston Reynolds

Photo Credit- Flickr/

Photo Credit- Flickr/

If you watch the ABC show Shark Tank, you'll notice the sharks ask a lot of questions about revenue. It doesn't matter how good an idea seems on the surface. If there's no revenue, they usually aren't interested.

This begs an important question. Imagine you're a founder with a really great idea. How do you turn that idea into revenue? An idea for a product is one thing. Making money selling your product is something else entirely. It's often the difference between a product and a business This is something that we see repeatedly at 1000 Angels, the private investor network that connects startups with investors.


How Ideas Become Businesses

Many founders are tempted to start raising money as soon as possible. They often plan to use that money to hire marketing and sales staff. But raising money without revenue is hard. And producing revenue without money is hard. Sometimes it seems like there's a "catch 22" built into the system.   

There's no "catch 22," but there is a catch. The catch is founders have to hustle in order to turn a product into something that begins to resemble a business. Hustle is related to grit. Grit is related to gumption. It is incredibly difficult, some would even say impossible, to build a business without these attributes.


What is Hustle?

The dictionary gives us 21 different definitions for the word "hustle," but none of them accurately conveys what it means in terms of growing a start-up.

We also have the pejorative "hustledork" to work from, but that definition is not likely to be useful, either. It's a fairly common refrain that start-ups in the early stages need a "hustler and a hacker" to get off the ground. In lieu of an accurate definition, have a look at the following poster by Joey Roth:

Charlatan, Martyr, Hustler


From the chart, we can tell that a hustler is equal parts charlatan and martyr. Charlatans talk a lot, and they're easy enough to find in the marketer ranks. Martyrs work a lot, and they're easy to find among developers and designers. It's also plain to see that a hustler who doesn't work is a fraud, a charlatan.

What charlatans and martyrs both lack is the ability to work and then talk about their work vigorously and persuasively.

But we still haven't defined what it really means to hustle. To really define it, let's go back to a 2012 article by Greg Kumparak published in PandoDaily:

"To truly hustle is to do whatever it takes to make that next dollar, no matter how crazy or ridiculous."

In the early stages, hustlers are important because the work of building the business and the work of promoting and operating the business must be done by as few people as possible. Ideally everyone involved in the start-up has some of those precious hustle genes in their DNA. 

Start-up reality often dictates the developer has to extend his or her day running errands or taking care of customers by answering emails and returning phone calls. The sales pro might need to know something about development and design to be truly useful, especially when there are just two people on the team. The team's ability to wear not just many hats but all of the hats is often what separates a mere idea from a burgeoning business, at least in the beginning.


An Example

As Tom Harari, CEO of NYC-based Cleanly demonstrates, this is true even after a start-up secures seed funding:

"[After leaving San Francisco via the red-eye to NYC, Harari's] back on the street, putting Cleanly door tags on apartment buildings and working the room at meetups and cocktail parties as he looks for potential customers. When the company’s drivers get overwhelmed, Harari and cofounders, Itay Forer and Chen Atlas, handle the deliveries themselves."

(Fast Company, February 2015)

Although Cleanly relies on their drivers, they know not to push them too hard. And they also know that bringing on extra, or even temporary, drivers will not only speed their burn rate, it may also compromise the service their first customers receive. When the business gets hectic, they take on the extra responsibilities themselves. They know how to hustle. 


Can Hustle Be Taught?

We're not sure, but we know hustle is infectious in the same way enthusiasm and leadership are infectious. Having the right person on the team may inspire the rest of the team to do whatever it takes to get or retain the next customer. It seems to work out best when everyone brings their own unique hustle to the table starting from day one.

Some developers and designers pull 36-hour marathon sessions in front of their machines only to crash on a couch, all based on an unsubstantiated hunch originating in another founder's inbox. Others won't last more than ten hours. The difference comes down to hustle. In business, the difference between success and failure often comes down to doing what other people are not willing to do.


Why It Matters

Investors watch for founders who hustle. It's not good enough to convince them your idea is good. You have to show them your idea is good using the best evidence you can have, usually numbers. When it comes to business, revenue is the king of numbers. Where there is revenue, there is often a good idea backing it up. The revenue often matters more than the idea when you want, or need, other people's money to help you start or grow your business. The only way to get there for most founders is to do things other people are not willing or even capable of doing.

You're going to have to show investors the money. You have to show them something so compelling that they feel stupid walking away from it. Investors cut checks when you can show them your company's profitability is as certain as death and taxes. There are no checks for founders who come up short, either from investors or the marketplace. Before you can explain it to them, you have to be able to explain, and prove, it to yourself. The best way to do that is to hustle. 


Final Thoughts

Earlier we said hustle was composed of "grit" and "gumption" before going on to define hustle as doing whatever it takes to get customers, no matter how silly.

Google reveals that gumption is "shrewd or spirited initiative and resourcefulness."

And grit is "courage and resolve; strength of character."

Resourcefulness means finding new ways of doing things. You have to be shrewd to do these things without burning through your runway. And you have to be spirited to get off the ground. And nothing takes to the air without courage, resolve, and strength of character. All of these things combine with technical and business skill to create what entrepreneurs, founders, and investors call "hustle." 

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