Five Lessons for Screenwriters From the Startup World
From The Social Network to Silicon Valley, Shark Tank to the StartUp podcast, even the Uber you took to dinner last night, startup culture has infiltrated our everyday world.
What is a startup? Generally, a startup is a fairly new company that aims to solve a problem by innovating on existing ideas — a trait we screenwriters share with them, since we’re also often trying to bring a fresh, new take to existing ideas, elements, or genres.
In fact, starting a screenwriting career may have a few things in common with launching a startup, and there are certainly a few lessons to be learned.
LESSON ONE: Fail fast, fail often
What it means in the startup world: “Fail fast, fail often” is a catchy way of saying that startups need to iterate quickly to find out what works. The fundamental activity of a startup is to turn ideas into products, measure how customers respond and then learn whether to pivot or persevere. No one gets it right on the first try, so the path to success means hitting lots of speed bumps, and doing it without slowing down.
What it means to screenwriters: No one should ever set out to fail, of course. But being unafraid of failure — and, by extension, unafraid to try new things — is the lesson here. Spend less time wondering if something will work, and more time getting an idea on its feet to see how viable it is. Then cultivate the ability to adapt and learn from the “failures.”
LESSON TWO: User test, user test, user test
What it means in the startup world: Related to the first lesson, but vital enough to require its own shout out as Elon Musk does here:
"Take as much feedback from as many people as you can about whatever idea you have... seek critical feedback. Ask them what's wrong.”
Successful startup founders know they need to user test early and they need to ask probing questions to get information they can actually use to improve. It’s important to get past users’ instinct to be polite and not point out faults. Going beyond the easy answers is what will make their business or product stronger.
What it means to screenwriters: Notice the distinction between seeking feedback and seeking critical feedback. That’s really the key here. Because if you’re giving your screenplays to your mom so she can reassure you that you’re a talented shining star, you’re not doing yourself any favors. Ask what’s wrong, and don’t just take a reader’s notes at face value. Dive deeper. Have a conversation. Get to the note behind the note so you can work on solving the core problem.
And when you do receive critical feedback on your work, do it with an open mind and a humble ego. Remember: You don't have to agree with them or necessarily follow their suggestions. But thinking through your projects from different angles will help you get to the strongest finished product.
LESSON THREE: Get comfortable with being uncomfortable
What it means in the startup world: Startups may have lifted this pithy saying from Navy SEALs, who use it more in reference to their extreme physical challenges, but it applies to any type of desired growth or change. The point for both SEALs and startups is to stay focused on the end goal, regardless of the discomfort of the current situation.
What it means to screenwriters: If you want to improve your skills and advance your career, you have to step outside of your comfort zone. No growth or learning happens without challenging your current level of ability. So rather than mindlessly going through the motions, perhaps doing things and solving problems the way you always do, push yourself to confront the writing tasks that don’t come easily, find new solutions, and work on your weak points.
LESSON FOUR: The riches are in the niches
What it means in the startup world: For startups, often the way to launch a product successfully is to focus on applying it to one narrow niche, building a strong user base in that niche, and then scaling the business from there. Focusing on a niche allows for targeted marketing efforts and can help a startup assume a role of authority in a particular arena. Rather than being generalists, they’re specialists.
What it means to screenwriters: Specializing or finding a niche can be a smart strategy for screenwriters too. Worried about being pigeon-holed? Don’t be; when you’re trying to get a foothold in the industry, that can be exactly what you need. If you build a focused body of work that acts as a calling card for your brand as a writer, you’re helping buyers understand what kind of writing jobs to hire you for.
LESSON FIVE: Know your exit
What it means in the startup world: An entrepreneur who knows his exit knows what his end goal is — what he’s building and who he’s eventually going to sell it to.
What it means to screenwriters: You can apply this two ways. First, you might look at it as knowing the end goal for a particular project. Is it a writing sample intended to help you secure a writing assignment? Is it something you’re going to make yourself on a shoestring budget? Is it a passion project that you have to get out onto the page before moving on to something else?
Being clear on the target you’re aiming a particular project toward will help define the parameters, and hopefully help you play with the boundaries and make some inspired choices.
You might also think about the exit strategy of a project as knowing when to let go. It’s easy to fall into the perfection trap and to keep tweaking one project past the point of diminishing returns. But if you’re serious about having a screenwriting career, it’s important to keep writing — new projects, multiple samples, a body of work. Yes, details matter. But you have to know when to let go and move on to the next thing.
The Wrap Up
Produce work regularly, get critical feedback and take it with an open mind and a willingness to work on your weaknesses. Focus your efforts to create a foundation for growth, and keep your big picture goal in mind. These are solid lessons for screenwriters to learn from those scrappy, nimble startups. After all, you are the CEO of your own screenwriting career.
Naomi is a long time script reader and screenplay contest judge, and former development exec-in-training. She’s lived and worked in L.A. for about a decade, read thousands of scripts and worked with hundreds of writers. She’s also a screenwriter and has been hired to write and rewrite screenplays, treatments, pitch documents, and director’s statements. You can follow her on Twitter HERE.