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.