Zach Sobiech passed away May 20th after a battle with cancer.
He was only 17 years old.
You can see in the video his 17 years on earth had more impact than anyone could have imagined.
Sometimes your ego will write checks your body can’t cash.
This is so true for the startup founder who chooses the role of CEO in his own company.
I thought of it recently as I read a great post by Jonathan Strauss, former CEO and founder of awe.sm, about stepping down from the founder/CEO role after 4 years. In it, he very honestly describes his feelings on the decision and what ultimately brought him to remove himself from the leadership role.
Jonathan aptly describes entrepreneurship:
To be an entrepreneur I believe one must have a somewhat irrational belief in your own capabilities, otherwise you’d never be dumb enough to start a company. Regardless of any perceived glamor, most entrepreneurs I know will tell you that starting and running a company is fucking hard and there’s often more misery than joy.
He. Nails. It. On. The. Head.
If you are a frequent reader you will know this description of entrepreneurship can be found here on this blog as well. No doubt, founding a company is one of the most difficult and emotionally taxing things in the world. It’s a wonder company creation is actually on the rise when you read statements like these.
Jonathan goes further on why it was so hard to remove himself:
I put hiring a CEO in the same category as taking an acqui-hire or just closing up shop and moving on — things I would think about at 4am in the office on those darkest nights when I’d have a bout of sobriety about the insanity I’d turned my life into. And ultimately, things that represented the one unacceptable option motivating me to push even further beyond my limits I’d long surpassed: failure. In the early days, the only way for me to keep awe.sm from failing was to tie my fate with the company’s. If awe.sm failed, I failed. But as we switched from lean startup to growth company, I didn’t fully realize how making my ego a shareholder went from being necessary for survival to being a limitation on what we could achieve.
One of the toughest “checks” to cash as a founder is to think you are the sole reason for company success or failure. Notice how Jonathan admits he attached himself and his fate with the fate of the company. It is indeed one of the inherent flaws of us founders.
I commend Jonathan for his decision but I am also not letting the lesson pass me by, and you shouldn’t either. The ego issue is very dangerous for both of you and your company.
Founders need to have a healthy balance of ego. On one side you need to have an almost superhuman confidence about yourself and your vision because that is the only way you can get thorough the really tough times of starting the journey. But – and THIS IS A BIG BUT – you also need to understand you are not Superman and the company can actually succeed with someone else at the helm. You aren’t the only person on earth who can identify a market, describe a vision, build a team, sell customers and increase monthly revenue. Other people can do that too. And even with you still on the team.
More importantly, others might be able to do it all better than you.
So, take Jonathan’s example and learn from it. Sometimes removing yourself from the most scrutinized and stressful position in the company is the best decision for everyone involved.
We all love to talk about the hockey stick moment for a company, referring to the moment when users and usage really starts to take off. It’s fun. It’s exciting. And it’s so elusive we all want to dissect what the specific company actually did to achieve the stratospheric growth.
But what about the hip check?
What’s that you say? Never heard of the startup hip check? Well, take a look at the image below and I think you can get an idea of what I am talking about.
This head-over-feet-over head-over-feet feeling can happen at any moment of a company founding experience. Sometimes it happens within the first few months of a new idea as the honeymoon wears off and founders realize the pieces don’t fit and they don’t have a starters chance of even putting something together. Other times (like mine) you get up and running – even get some initial customer wins under your belt – and then it hits you when you least expect it.
BAM – “what the hell was that!?”
In any regard, getting hip checked throws you and your company completely off your feet and off course. There is a good chance an injury has occurred and you may never recover. It feels like what I imagine the hockey player above must have felt as he was brutally checked right onto his a**.
And you know what? It happens to EVERYBODY. All athletes. All entrepreneurs. everybody.
So what do you do once you shake the cobwebs out of your head and realize you just got taken to town?
Simply pausing and taking account of your status is the first thing you should to do. At this moment do not let tempers or emotions get the best of you. Athletes ask themselves questions like: Do I have all my limbs? Are my legs situated in the right direction? (Anyone watching this years NCAA basketball March Madness tournemant will know know you should now check all your limbs after a bad fall.)
Rather than get emotional and retaliate, athletes need to assess why it happened. Was I too slow? Did I make the wrong move? Was he just flat out better than me?
Entrepreneurs need to ask similar questions: Why did that just happen? What did we miss? And what is our financial status, how much money do we have in the bank? What do the others on the team think and feel about our situation? Are they hurt and need to go recover, or can they keep at it? Also, who else knows we just got hip checked? Was it reported in the media and did we take a PR hit?
Through these questions you will determine if the company can and should continue, or if indeed it’s best to step off the ice.
Rest. Ice. Compression. Elevate.
My education taught me RICE was the simplest injury treatment protocol, basically placing it in a state of limited movement and maximum preservation. Same for a startup. If continuation of the company is desired, I am suggesting taking a similar approach with your startup. You have to stop the bleeding (financially) and start the healing process (working) as quick as possible. If needed, go get a paid gig as quick as you can so cash starts flowing into the bank once again. I waited way too long on this one and can tell you it wasn’t pretty. Cash really does solve many problems and helps to open back up the creative process since a huge pressure valve is released.
Open the communication lines with your team, have long discussions about why the hip check happened so you can start the healing process. Through these discussions the weaknesses will be revealed and the ways forward will emerge.
Elevate yourself. A strange (albeit predictable) thing happens when founders get hip checked – depression. Since it takes a certain chutzpah to start a company, namely audaciousness and ego, I have noticed those also work against the entrepreneur once they find themselves face first on the ice. Of course this isn’t what you expected as you started out and most definitely how you didn’t want others to see you.
But there you are.
You must get up. You must inflate that ego (figuratively speaking) back to where it was before, when you believed in yourself and your team. A positive and forward looking perspective is the only way to recover from the hip check.
If you watch a hockey game it doesn’t take very long to notice how often hits and checks happen to all players. And you know what? They get back up and shake it off. They try again. It’s quite the same in the startup world. Everyday, founders are getting hip checked to founder hell and back. Yet, the ones we end up reading about are the ones who got back up and tried again.
Elon Musk has probably been checked more than most other successful entrepreneurs out there. Did you know there was a time he was literally broke as he was building Tesla and SpaceX? At one point he put the last of his millions he had made previously into his companies so they wouldn’t go under – personally financing them and risking everything he had worked for - and then lived off loans from his other millionaire friends.
Yes, and now people say he has it too good as a billionaire and CEO of two incredibly innovative technology companies.
Hmm, well there’s a reason Musk refers to founding a company as “it’s like eating shards of glass and staring into the abyss of death.”
Because it’s true.
I simply say: Just get up and keep skating.
Finally some good news I have been dying to share. Yes, it’s true and you should be excited, I will be putting out a book very soon and I hope you help me help you by purchasing it.
I was approached recently by a company wanting to help me publish a book. I felt very honored as I glanced through their previously published authors consisting of greatly respected people, such as prominent investors Fred Wilson, Brad Feld, tech blogger Semil Shah, entrepreneur Jeff Atwood and others. Pretty cool I will be now sitting along side these guys.
A collection of my writings found on this blog is being put into book format by a cool new company and will not be your traditional novel meant to be read from start to finish. It is bits and pieces of truth about technology, entrepreneurship, founder stories, leadership and life in general meant to educate and encourage others. It will be in ebook form, and you will be able to download it in the common e-reader formats.
If you are a longtime visitor to this blog you surely will remember reading the original posts as you browse the book. I hope you choose to purchase it and re-read them again, as sometimes we only really connect with lessons on the second go around.
If you are a newer visitor, we’ll this is perfect for you to get caught up on almost 2 years of thoughts and musings (that hopefully) have been useful to others around the world.
Keep your eye out for the release. This should be the start of an exciting future of publishing great content in book format.
A recent column in the U.S.A Today makes the bold claim that there are less startups today than compared to the 1980′s, during the Carter administration.
At any rate, the latest data indicate that start-ups are becoming rarer, not more common. A new report from JPMorgan economist Mike Feroli indicates that employment in start-ups is plunging. New jobs in the economy tend to come from new businesses, but we’re getting fewer new businesses.
I am going to guess Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a professor and the author of the post, is not an entrepreneur and has never been one. If he was one he would know basing innovation metrics and the quantity of “startups” solely on the amount of people they employ is an incredibly flawed argument.
Diving deeper into the JP Morgan study, they lay claim to a few reasons on why we are seeing an apparent slow down in startups:
Hudson’s possible suspects for the slowdown: a) higher business taxes, b) Obamacare, c) an IRS crackdown on US employers that hire U.S. workers as independent contractors rather than employees, and d) a steady barrier erected to entrepreneurs at the local policy level.
But whatever the cause of the entrepreneurial decline, two possible impacts: 1) A less productive and innovative economy, and 2) higher profits for big business thanks to fewer upstart competitors on the horizon.
Here are a few observations on why I feel this assessment is off the mark:
1) Assuming Obamacare is a factor completely misses the point, since Obama wasn’t even in office when the decline in jobs started (see chart above).
2) Although a local policy issue may influence certain industries – since we’re talking the entire nation here it’s irrelevant to include local policies because they vary state to state. I, for one, can tell you it’s quite easy to get going in your own new venture.
3) The IPO market really cooled off over the last decade, suggesting a rise in mergers and acquisitions. Simply stated, startups are being bought by bigger companies before they beef up their workforce, which also will affect overall startup employment numbers.
4) If anything, they miss the most obvious reason why people would choose employment at a larger corporation rather than a startup: job security and dependable paycheck in a shaky economy. Although this also doesn’t apply since the economy didn’t tank until late 2008 and beyond, so again, not a very high correlation.
5) The largest omission in this report can be seen by evaluating technological progress and the resulting drop in computing costs. Comparing the chart from the JP Morgan article and a graph of Moore’s Law (which is exponential) you now realize using a simple number like the number of employees of startups is probably the wrong approach when determining the current status of innovation. Moore’s Law states the computing power is increasing at the same time the cost is dropping. So, it is easier to start a business than ever before. The cost of computing, virtual work environments, AWS, instant and free communication tools, and the proliferation of the web have coalesced to create a startup nirvana. Looking at two charts from the same timeframe you will notice the stark drop in jobs at the same time a drastic increase in computing power? Coincidence? I don’t think so.
So am I missing something here?
Maybe if they simply stated “startups are employing less people” I wouldn’t have a problem with the report. But they didn’t. They claim (in fact lead with) the idea that there are less startups and innovation than in the 80′s and 90′s, which I feel is wrong – or at least how they came to that conclusion is currently flawed. They go on to make a few solid points regarding higher taxes and government regulation and how those influence an early venture hiring but lack any real depth for their argument. Maybe they should have consulted an entrepreneur or two who could help them sift through the chaff a bit further.
My take: it takes less people to achieve more today. What once took a team of 10 to accomplish now only takes 2 or 3 people and a wifi connection. So I am claiming the exact opposite of the USA Today and JP Morgan. We are seeing more products, apps, and startups created today than ever before. Ask any VC or startup founder and I guarantee they will say the same thing.
Hell, Instagram and their entire team of 12 employees was sold for almost $1 billion to Facebook in 2012. So whatever you do, do not believe there is a lack of innovation and startups out there. If anything, there’s more innovation and startups created each day than ever before because we can do more with less.
One just needs to look closer and use the right measuring stick.
You may have seen this two-year old video but I saw it today and thought it’s worthy of highlighting. It puts together a quite intriguing vision of how we’ll interact with the web and technology in the future.
Entrepreneurs, you might want to look for ideas of how you can get involved building some of these things starting today.
I recently went to a rock wall gym with a friend for the first time in a very long time. To be completely honest, I was a bit nervous about going because it had been so long since I climbed up a wall with no harness or assistance. Rock climbing is new, different and something I am not used to doing.
I am not totally sure why I was intimidated. I’m in pretty good shape, quite athletic and usually take challenges head on. The only thing I can think of is I didn’t want to look like an idiot in front of the other climbers at the facility. I also didn’t want to find myself stuck 15 or 20 feet up a wall with no where to go. What would I do then?
But you know what?
It was really fun. I did very well, especially for my first time in like 10 years. I didn’t really even feel fatigued or tired, which tells me my endurance and strength are still there. I didn’t look like an idiot, in fact I felt quite at home and fit in with the more advanced climbers there. I was able to scale the novice routes no problem, and even attempted more advanced ones with little hesitation.
Right then and there I decided climbing is something I want to put more time into and develop skills so I can get outside and into the “real” climbing environment. It’s also a damn good workout.
I learned a few lessons the other night.
1) Putting yourself in new and uncomfortable situations is the only way to grow and get better as a person.
2) It feels good to overcome fear, intimidation or whatever the little voice in your head is trying to hold you back from.
3) You never really know how you will react to something until you jump right in and get at it.
4) In reality, no one cares about you or if you look like an idiot. That is a very self-centered way to look at the world.
So…. forget about whatever is holding you back from that cool new experience. Just do it.