Some years ago, throughout the poorer parts of Grand Bahama, inland from the beaches and resorts, you’d pass scraggly plots of land featuring sad-looking, half-collapsed houses, all a jumble of bare cinderblock and rebar.
At least, that’s what it looked like to me. But what’s actually happening is magical.
At birth, each Bahamian citizen has rights to an empty plot of land. From then until they’re 18, instead of collecting knickknacks for their birthday, family and relatives give them building materials. Concrete. Cinderblocks. Rebar. 2 by 4s. And eventually, paint. It sits in a pile, dry beneath a tarp and apparently abandoned. But from when they’re old enough to start piling bricks, each year, after their birthday, they come out to their plot and add a bit to their future home. When they turn 18 and are ready to move out of their parent’s house, they move into a simple starter house they’ve built with their own hands.
It’s the most amazing tradition. It’s inspiring and wonderful. But before I understood what I was looking at, I thought I was seeing something sad and pitiful.
I mention this because sometimes the people close to us see our startups-in-progress in the same misguided way. They don’t understand the process, so they can’t help but see a sad pile of stuff that’s
not-quite-a-company instead of seeing the foundations of something wonderful. They see a team size of two (counting yourself) working from your living room as a sign of failure or collapse rather than as a natural stage of growth every company passes through.
In most cases, people not getting what we do is fine. If it’s a friend-but-not-really who you only cross paths with at someone else’s party, then you can just avoid talking to them about work and shrug off the occasional comment. But if it’s your very close family or friends, you might want their underestanding instead of just their sympathy. Otherwise, even if they’re trying to be supportive, it can end up feeling more like pity, which doesn’t exactly help.
It’s lonely work to be putting everything you’ve got into something nobody understands. Having a few people close to you who really get it is important. That’s actually one of the main benefits of getting involved in the local startup community when you first start out. It’s less about the networking and more about finding a few trusted friends who can see what’s being built instead of just what’s missing.
As for helping someone understand (parent, partner, close friend), it’s going to be hard. My had both started companies and I dragged my close friends into startup land alongside me, so I was fantastically lucky in that regard. But I’ve seen plenty of other founders draw a tougher lot and wind up with no understanding ears. If someone is keen to learn, maybe you can show them the real story, like someone did for me with the Bahamian houses. If they’ll read it, send them a copy of Jessica Livingstone’s excellent Founder’s at Work. It does a great job of showing that every beautiful house has to start out as a pile of cinder blocks and cement at some point. It’s a stage, not a problem. We just normally aren’t lucky enough to see it being built.
 I get the impression that the tradition is unfortunately dying out due to the realistic dangers of unregulated amateur-built houses in a hurricane zone. I was last there to see it in early 2000s. I hope they’ve been able to find some compromise between safety and tradition.