Doing the Dirty Work

In 18 months since starting Magma, we’ve invested in 18 companies. The biggest predictor of success so far is very simple: does the entrepreneur value doing the dirty work and is he or she willing and able to identify it and then do it.

Paul Graham calls it doing things that don’t scale. Sam Altman’s How to Startup class 8 is devoted to it. Successful entrepreneurs and VCs all have different names for it. But at the end of the day, it’s the same idea: the stuff that takes you from 0 to 1 and then 1 to 2 gets you on the path to validating your business and start to scale it without building software and business processes. (I wrote a blog post about doing the dirty work in an commerce company here.)

But many (most?) first time founders (including some in our portfolio) either don’t see the value of doing the dirty work or can’t correctly identify what the dirty work they should be doing actually is. It’s one of the biggest, if not the biggest, red flag that goes up when I meet entrepreneurs. If they’re not doing the dirty work on their own when they don’t have any funding, they probably won’t just start doing it when they do have our money in their bank account.

I’m not sure why, but I think it’s a combination of the following factors. Founders:

  • Don’t see the value in the dirty work
  • Think they don’t need to do it.
  • Think they’re too good for it.
  • Think that most successful startups didn’t have to do it, so why should they do it?

The biggest common factor with all four of these reasons is a big one: ignorance.

The most successful companies that many people think are overnight successes struggled for years trying to find success. Look at Airbnb. Dropbox. Whatsapp. And so many more. Most people think they’re overnight successes, but they’re really not. The media hypes up massive companies and talks about overnight successes, but overnight successes are the once in a decade occurrence. Even Instagram, which went from 0 to $1b, still took two years.

Many first time entrepreneurs think that you can skip from step 1 to step 100, just like the big successes that they see in the media, but the reality is that nearly all big successes that they see in the media actually went from step 1 to 2 to 3, to 2 to 4, to 5 to 4 etc etc. It’s almost never linear.

If you want to bet your time, effort, money that you’re the once in a decade company, go for it, but the odds are massively against you.

The second most common factor is that the entrepreneur just doesn’t have the stomach for the dirty work. It’s hard. It’s dirty. It’d called dirty work for a reason.

But if you do the dirty work, you still may not succeed. But at least you’ll find out fast and probably will be able to find a new, real opportunity in the process.


  • A great reminder/motivator. Thanks Nate.

    Question: if you have the stomach for the dirty work, what tips can you offer for figuring out the “correct” dirty work you should be doing?

    • Very good question. I start out trying to break down my goal into the smallest building blocks possible and then work to complete the first one, then the second one, as if they were the only goals. How would I get from step 1 to step 2 if I didn’t need to get to step 100 later? That’s usually the easiest way to figure out the dirty work.

      And if that’s not right, most successful entrepreneurs can help you get on the right track with a quick conversation. It’s like anything else, if you practice enough, it becomes easier.

  • Done the dirty work, validated the idea, but it looks like a “lifestyle” company to investors even with a net profitability of $4M by end of year 5. Where do you go for funding if Angels, VCs and Accelerators all refuse to fund ventures that will make real money but not 25X their investments?

    • Patricia,

      Maybe it is a lifestyle business. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The vast majority of companies shouldn’t be venture backed startups. If you think its really a lifestyles business, but need more cash to grow, I’d suggest looking for business angels who want to back small/medium businesses that aren’t startups. If you think it just looks like a lifestyle business, but is really a startup, then you have ap problem with presentation.

      I’d be really sure to figure out if its a lifestyle business or not, because the reality is that VCs and startup angels need to invest in startups, not small/medium businesses. It’s not their business model.

      You should look at some of Derek Siver’s work to learn more.

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