Guts Not Grades

May 4, 2012 at 8:25 pm

Having a startup is about conviction.

The most appropriate synonym that comes to mind when I think of entrepreneurs and startups is resiliency.  I compete with Ivy League grads, who disturbingly, many people look at in awe.  Book knowledge and street knowledge are very different things.  But, beyond knowledge are instincts and guts.  Two things that can’t be taught.  I believe there is such a thing as “Startup DNA”.

A startup is like a newborn baby.  It needs nurturing.

People tend to get hung up on titles and labels.  They mean very little, especially in the beginning when building a product.  The product matters, your early customers matter.  Not quitting matters.

It’s difficult to see the view from the top of the mountain when you’re climbing uphill and the top is hidden in the clouds.  But, entrepreneurs know deep down inside that if they keep at it, keep climbing, eventually they’ll see the clouds clear (and return, and clear, and return, etc etc until they reach the top).

People have said entrepreneurs are special in the sense that they are illogical, unreasonable, or downright insane!  It’s true that an entrepreneur is unique.  Most people aren’t interested in extreme sacrifice.  They would prefer to be comfortably led like sheep.  The job of the entrepreneur is to convince the sheep that he/she isn’t crazy, but there’s a process that takes place to get to that point that involves many sacrifices, overcoming doubts and challenges, and infinite bouts of courage.

As with a sick baby or trudging uphill exhausted, what it’s not about is running when things get tough.

Some people are cut out for startups; many are not.  There is an excitement, even a cool factor, that people get caught up in.  But when the hard work kicks in, 50% drop out.  When there are tough days or funding is running low, the strong are separated from the weak, and the last standing are the ones with conviction.

The true test comes when things are difficult.

Giving yourself a pseudo title to get attention or to get into certain events or companies doesn’t actually change your DNA into a startup person.  Skipping a night out with friends or a family function, even with all the pressure and guilt, to hit a deadline, is true dedication.

This is exactly what I mean by sacrifice:

“The workload of a start-up is ridiculous.  It’s really not healthy.  For eight years of my life, there were very few waking moments that Tripod did not completely consume.  I rarely returned the phone calls of good friends.  I routinely missed important family gatherings.  I couldn’t keep a steady girlfriend.  To put it plainly, I didn’t have enough time to maintain the sort of normal relationships typically associated with the human race.”

- Bo Peabody, Greycroft Partners, in his book Lucky or Smart

I couldn’t have said it better myself.  If you ever wonder if the daily grueling grind, the ups and downs, the mental anguish, the ramen noodles, the amazing days followed by crushing defeats, is all worth it – take a look at Bo’s story.  Are most people willing to stick around for EIGHT years, with few friend or family interactions?  It wears on you.  You question things – a lot.  Sounds borderline insane but it takes guts.

There has to be a balance, don’t get me wrong.  I’m a huge believer in “sharpening your saw” as Stephen Covey says.  Too much for too long causes productivity to diminish relative to time output.  But what I am saying is that you have to have chops.

A final great quote from Chris Dixon, CEO of Hunch, and active angel investor:

“It’s a cliche, but early-stage startups are really all about the people.  Had you taken any company I’ve been involved with and drawn a straight line extrapolating forward, I don’t think you would’ve seen why it was an interesting company… what ends up happening is that the environment changes, you discover flaws in your original concept, and good entrepreneurs adapt and change.  The only way you would’ve seen it is if you’d understood the passion and the guts of the people involved”.

- Chris Dixon, quoted on Founder Collective

Passion and guts.

I’ve had business partners, developers, salespeople, interns, clients, deals, and so on, come and go.  Recognizing that this ebbs and flows, that startups are in a constant state of flux, is the key to overcoming the bad days and learning resiliency.  Behind every cloud is a silver lining, after every crushing defeat is a rewarding accomplishment.

Everyone Has a Story

May 1, 2012 at 3:55 am

Everyone Has a Story … It’s your story, you write it.  

These words echo often in my thoughts.

Similar words were said by Internet Entrepreneur Chris Michel when talking to a Harvard Business School class about entrepreneurship.

As the story was told to me, there was a student, from Brazil, who said he planned to copy a business idea from the US and bring it to Brazil.  Chris’s response was “well, you can make a lot of money doing that, but at the end of the day when it’s no longer about money and you have enough, you will have to have a story to tell.  Everyone has a story”.  This is paraphrased but the lesson was strong.

There are three famous brothers, Germans who created Rocket Internet, an incubator company built to clone popular startup ideas, including Groupon, EBay, Facebook, VeriSign.  The Samwer brothers have been called unethical parasites.

A startup exists to make money, yes, but that’s not the basis upon which it was created.

Startups are temporary companies that solve a larger problem  - Steven Blank

Startups are created by innovative problem solvers who see something they don’t like, wish to change, or could improve and they come up with a solution.  Entrepreneurs work nearly 24 / 7 (even in their sleep!) and take great risks and sacrifices to solve these problems effectively.  They are artists, scientists, creators, persistent optimists, and childishly naive.  They are dreamers and world changers.

Copying someone’s idea has nothing to do with innovation.  It’s a cheap way to get rich.

Look at your life from the end to present.  What do you want people to say about you, alive or dead?  Is your life filled with happiness or emptiness?  Write a book about your life that you would want to read.  About YOUR life, not someone else’s.  It’s not that hard to be creative.  It’s harder I would think to live with yourself for blatantly stealing from someone else and calling it your very own.

Giving credit where credit is due and true innovation is what inspires more innovation, more entrepreneurship, and progression.

What chapter are you on in your book and how does it end?

Scrubbing Toilets in Malaga

May 1, 2012 at 2:26 am

I once said I would do whatever it took to go overseas and earn income, even if I had to scrub toilets with a toothbrush in Malaga, Spain.

Thankfully for the Internet, I can go to Malaga to brush my teeth and not the toilet.

It’s not that easy to uproot, to find a job, to pay for travel expenses, home expenses and loans, to learn a new language, adjust to cultural differences, or to scrub toilets.

I used to spend hours (at work, sorry Inger Reilly, it was only “hours” because the Internet was dialup!) researching ways to live and work abroad – visas, stories, tips, how-to’s.  Not much existed when the Internet first started.  Even still, we continue transforming in the digital era.  The Internet and technology evolve rapidly but humans are much slower to make shifts.

After having a first taste of life in Spain, I was hooked and needed to find a way to get back to exploring new cultures, languages, and places.

Finding a serious boyfriend, moving to Seattle, and getting a job at Adobe, “life” eventually hit me.  I got caught in the rat race and looked at what was around me, not within me.

There are a few ways to travel as a profession, and by that I don’t mean busking on the street and eating out of trash cans (though I’ve seen former corporate slaves do this).  You can be a writer or journalist, a photographer, become a roadie with a band, be sent overseas by your job, contractor.  For me, I tried many of these things (except for the band).  My options are contract work, self employment, and earning revenues either residually from business or from the sale of my company.

I’ve tried or am trying them all.  I have taught English in Spain, sold artesian crafts with gypsies on dirt streets, built websites in Hungary and Nicaragua, helped translate and sell tours in Oaxaca, promoted and sold tickets for a disco in Costa Rica, helped a musician friend panhandle in Argentina, and I once sold an octopus to a restaurant in Mexico …. so for the record, I just might scrub the toilet.  I have some great stories, though thankfully, there are better ways. Read on!