Why Startups Need Bricklayers and Architects

By Joseph Flaherty

An architect talks to three masons working side-by-side and asks about their work.

🧱 “I’m laying brick…” says the first.

🏗️ “I’m putting up a wall,” answers the second.

⛪️ “I’m building a cathedral!” Exclaims the third.

This parable of POV can be applied to startups:

This allegory is typically deployed when trying to make an unpleasant task sound more palatable. The cathedral response is supposed to be the “right” answer, but the story’s moral is really a reminder that you need to be able to think/talk at multiple levels of abstraction.

Whether you are pitching VCs or the press, you need to switch contexts to meet your audience’s level of experience and interest. Few things are more frustrating than asking an incredibly specific question and getting a panoramic response, or vice versa.

Most “startup founders” gravitate toward the cathedral side of the narrative spectrum. Founders pursuing the venture path from the start know they need to tell a big story and are often pitching a vision ahead of their progress.

These founders are generally great at recruiting and inspiring teams. They can sell a vision to customers and VCs. This kind of ambition and eloquence is what earns headlines and book-length hagiographies. It’s a great skill — if you don’t lose sight of the foundation.

When this type of founder struggles, it tends to be because they lose sight of the bricklaying and wall-building aspects of company creation. They imagine massive structures built on sand without ever really understanding the bedrock principles of their business.

Entrepreneurs who seek VC after a successful stint bootstrapping tend to take after the bricklayers. They’ve been brilliant artisans and have laid a foundation for something big. Their challenge is frequently articulating a more expansive architectural vision.

This group is used to working with limited resources on short time horizons and without exposure to advisors who have successfully built scale businesses. They frequently lack the vocabulary and conceptual blueprints to paint a bigger picture.

Founders in this mode struggle when they can’t articulate a plan to grow beyond a linear trajectory. They know more resources will allow them to get bigger faster but often can’t produce a schematic beyond hiring more sales reps and “improving the product” in vague terms.

These are solvable problems! For the “cathedral builders,” pitching the story using *only* statistics can help. Centering the conversation around CAC/LTV, contribution margin, etc., forces engagement with the concrete realities that can be dodged in aspirational narratives.

For “bricklayers,” the “Big company for X” framework is helpful. It’s derided when used to draft off the hot company of the moment or in advance of building a real business. Still, it can be a surprisingly effective shorthand for companies with serious revenue.

The vaulted stone arches of a cathedral are magnificent to behold but are only possible when you combine an almost hubristic vision of the future with meticulous attention to detail. The same is true of startups. Think big and small!

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