"the only journey is the journey within"

- RILKE

Unless it's a journey through these pages. That's a journey, too.

Inventing A Fictional Startup Was A Bit Too Real

I’m writing a novel that centers around a fictional startup, Horatio. 

I’m not saying that inventing a fictional startup for a novel is like starting a real-life startup. But I am saying that I had to think through a lot of the same questions. 

Certainly more than I thought I’d have to. When I set out to write my novel, the plot I had in mind involved characters working at a startup. I decided I’d invent one for the book. But I wanted to do it properly.  

And to do it properly, I had to construct a startup that read legitimate enough to come off as real. Meaning I had to sit down and think like a founder. A reasonable founder with a reasonable company. 

I had to think of a startup idea that was worthy enough not just of entire book, but the lifecycle of a real startup that would last an entire plot. This meant taking into account things like user and employee growth, venture funding, and the behind-the-scenes employee discussions of what their stock options might be worth someday. 

So how did that go?

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My Fictional Startup

The startup I settled on, thanks to some inventive friends, is a decentralized mapping app that rewards recommenders with cryptocurrency through tips or revenue sharing through commerce driven to recommended businesses.

I played with the idea in my head until it was plausible enough to work. Hard to start, sure, but plausible. 

Once the idea was solidified, it was time to fill the team. Who would be crucial early hires? Would the founders try and fill an Operations team first? What about Tech? What did the cofounders have and not have as far as skills? The three co-founders I decided to use are (mostly) first time founders. I couldn’t make them all technical and operational geniuses, that wouldn’t be realistic. Not for a company that would later have problems with immaturity. Not for the plot I wanted. 

My main character is one of the first hires. He comes in as marketing help—but really as a low-paid assistant that acts as a kind of generalist. He helps with content, customer service, and marketing campaigns. He lucks into the role and stays on as cheap and loyal labor.

Then what? Well, Horatio needed tech hires. But it also needed product, sales, and marketing. Then the questions came: what’s a realistic timeline to hire all of these people? How does that timeline change once the company raises their Series A of venture capital? 

I’m not saying my fictional startup needed to be entirely routed in absolute reality—it is fiction after all. But I needed to make it realistic. Or else those who know this landscape would peel out. 

Next for me was the founding story. How did my characters—my three co-founders—come together and how did they start THIS particular app? In real-life, these stories are often as random as unbelievable as can be. Stranger than fiction, truly. The irony is that my founders have to come together in a believable way, even if it’s a tamed down version of an impossibility. I worked on how it could be. 

There was also a question of money–namely revenue and funding. I wanted the company to get VC funding to set them on a faster treadmill of growth. VC money ends up being something of a mixed victory for them (sound familiar, founders?)—but the funding had to be realistic. An app with a few thousand users and little revenue isn’t going to get $100 million in funding. They’re also going to see some rejections. How would they react to the wins and losses? What sea change would it establish in my characters that send them on different paths.

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And this was just the half of it. In merely just inventing a fictional startup to put my main character inside, I:

  • Came up with a feasibly successful idea for an app that earns revenue and ties into current technology trends and themes (app-based, crypto-involved)

  • Invented a founding story

  • Built a roadmap for crucial early hires and feasible of making those hires in a real timeline

  • Created a much disliked and at times overly-involved Angel investor 

  • Calculated cap tables, stock option dilution, and relevant VC funding for the app’s type

  • Sketched MRR and user download graphs

  • Put key fictional coverage pieces on the app’s growth in Recode, Forbes, TechCrunch, and more

  • Thought deeply about the cost of a bad key hire or two

  • Debated founders’ ideal exit strategy: acquisition, IPO, etc…

While it was all made up and could be done on paper instead of in real life, the list above speaks pretty closely to what a startup founder will do, think about, or eventually need to decide on. That’s why I kept coming back to the same thought: writing this startup is not so different than starting the darn thing myself. And before you think that one would be a lot more work than the other, take a second to think again. Because writing 400 pages isn’t a picnic either—and there’s no hack-a-thon, t-shirt swag, or free LaCroix’s in there for the lowly writer. 

My book is  called The Horatians and follows the founders and employees of Horatio as they grow into the startup they thought they always wanted to be. Only it’s a little different when they get there, and they sacrificed some things they never thought they would. I’m currently finalizing a draft to send to agents. 

Advice #16 - Working Non-Writing Jobs