Wednesday, at a conference (START SF) here in town, everybody was buzzing about a blog post, published late the night before, by an anonymous startup founder, titled “My Startup Has 30 Days to Live”. I also got a text and an email about it. Apparently, it’s spreading fast.
Even if it was anonymous, it was honest and brave to hit “publish”. It opened up an important conversation.
With that said, I totally disagree with the message. It does not sit right with me, or speak for me. It makes me want to shout: “Don’t jump! It doesn’t need to end this way!”
This person has given up. You do not need to give up. Even if you are in the same situation, do not despair. There is another way…
Remove the possibility of defeat
Sun Tzu said,
Do not worry about victory…
Remove the possibility of defeat.
Meditate on that.
Victory is beyond my control. I am but mortal. One, on a planet of six billion. In the scheme of things, almost no decisions are within my control. Ultimately, the only person I control is myself, and even that’s a struggle. I can do everything within my power, but ultimately, it is up to other people to believe, and to act.
Victory is also circumstantial. It depends on time and place. You may not have met the right person yet, for example. It may be someone you meet at an airport that appreciates the value of what you’re doing and writes the big check.
If victory is circumstantial and beyond my control, how do I remove the possibility of defeat?
Proximately, you may remove the possibility of defeat by getting to break-even, or by getting an acquisition offer that guarantees that your investors will at least get their principal back, etc.
These are tactics. They may or may not work. If they do, they are effective. But, like victory, they depend on others and circumstances. They are not entirely within your control.
Ultimately, you remove the possibility of defeat by refusing to surrender.
Running out of money is not the end. Failure is when you lose the will to fight. Not a moment sooner. If you still believe in what you’re fighting for, press on.
This is more than a tactic. It is a game-altering move.
Go back to the beginning
A logical decision to end your company should have something to do with why you started it in the first place.
For the sake of argument, allow me to introduce a binary schema. Suppose that there are two types of founders: opportunists and visionaries. What makes them different is their motivation for starting companies.
The schema itself is neutral. One is not inherently better than the other. I am wary of my choice of words here, as “opportunist” and “visionary” have value-laden connotations, but that is not what I intend to convey. Both founder-types are necessary in healthy economies. Both can build enormously successful companies.
The difference is in their motivations. Different motivations, of course, result in solving for different kinds of problems, with different styles.
Opportunists give up more easily, not necessarily because they lack courage or perseverance or risk-tolerance, but because they lack conviction. They are betting. When they started the company, there were circumstantial reasons why they felt confident enough that it might work; confident enough to take the leap and make a very risky bet by starting a company, raising money, working hard, etc.
For an opportunist, it’s all about speed. Get the product out there as fast as possible to start gathering feedback and iterating, then iterate as fast as possible, pivot when you’re not seeing enough traction or when you have a better hypothesis, and give up when you don’t think it can work anymore, or when you run out of money.
If it doesn’t work out, opportunists are not going to double-down and throw good money (and time) after bad. They are honest enough with themselves to acknowledge check-mate. Or, as our Anonymous Founder put it, when they’ve “run out of moves”. There’s any number of things that may have gone wrong. Self-reflective opportunists learn from these mistakes. Either they misjudged the circumstances, or executed wrong, etc.
The Anonymous Founder is an Opportunist. I’m not even sure it was a conscious decision. He is the product of the culture of Silicon Valley, a culture that the Lean Startup Movement created.
The Lean Startup Movement has been the dominant school of thought in Silicon Valley for too long. I am an outspoken critic, because although it has given us a valuable tactical framework, it has removed from the conversation casus belli. For years now, Silicon Valley has talked of nothing but battles, and forgotten about war.
Now, we have an imbalance in the ecosystem. Visionaries are few and far between. There would be more, if founders followed their instincts, but they get drilled into the dogma of the Lean Startup. Which is fine, if you want to build a Lean Startup. But not if you want to build a big one.
The Lean Startup has taught us, wisely, not to be too attached to how we do things - to allow more room for qualitative feedback and data-driven experimentation in our development process. But it has also brought with it, unfortunately, a culture that discourages founders from becoming too attached to why we do things.
Starting a company is like going to war. You are declaring war on the status quo. War is costly and painful. Why would you do it?
Solve the Van Gogh Problem
Let’s think about the word, “visionary”. It refers to sight. To seeing something others don’t. What does a visionary see?
A visionary sees unappreciated value.
Van Gogh was a visionary. He made art that nobody appreciated. Then, some time after his death, there was a shift in value, and people began to appreciate the greatness of the work.
An opportunist seeks to create value that the world is probably already prepared to compensate him for. A visionary seeks not only to create value, but to create a new type of value, that the world may not be ready for. If, as chances are, that’s the case, it requires two tasks further: to be patient and to sell - to make people see value, where before, there was only paint on canvas.
A visionary has to have an unshakeable sense of conviction in the beauty of an idea. It must be so beautiful that its value is inherent; and its future, inevitable. It will exist, because other people will eventually see what I see.
Victor Hugo expressed the sentiment best:
On résiste à l'invasion des armées; on ne résiste pas à l'invasion des idées.
Translated literally, it means: “One resists the invasion of armies; one does not resist the invasion of ideas”. Or, paraphrased, ‘there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.’
There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come, but there is nothing so fragile, or so weak, as an idea whose time has not come; an idea whom people don’t appreciate or value yet. What if its time does not come in the lifetime of your startup?
That’s The Van Gogh Problem, and it’s a real problem.
After all, maybe you are delusional. Some people may be able to keep going in the face of external defeat after defeat. But maybe nobody will ever appreciate the value because there is none, or it’s impossible, or the approach is wrong, etc.
How do you know you are not delusional?
Salesforce was founded in 1999! It has taken them many long years to get to where they are today. CRM – just like the PC, and the Cloud – wasn’t a big idea for a long time. It was a crazy idea.
Have you heard Joe tell the story of Airbnb? They are riding a huge wave now, but for a long time, they were waiting for it to come. For years! Of draught. They had to finance the company by making Obama and McCain cereal boxes during the election. Now, everybody wants to be a part of their success story.
Snapchat had 100,000 DAUs before a VC knocked on their door, literally, with a term sheet. What if Evan had tried to sell it to VCs first? They would’ve laughed at it. Now he’s laughing at them. They’re throwing him money at a nearly billion dollar valuation just to get his logo on their websites. Pinterest flew below the radar too.
What if they gave up? None of these ideas' times would have come if these founders had quit. Which begs the question, how did they do it? Are there ways to bring about a shift in the perception of value sooner, rather than later?
Yes. There are ways. Go find them. They are unique to your situation. But there is always a way. Success is always just around the corner. Hope springs eternal.
If you can persuade people, if you can shift their perception of value, if you master the rhetorical power of language, if you can figure out how to make them as excited, as bullish, as certain as you are that it is so valuable that it is inevitable, then you have figured out how to warp space and time, and, pardon the mixed metaphor, mountains will move. Your idea’s time will have come.
Ideas are not commodities
Let’s introduce another binary. There are two ways of looking at anything: either something is valuable, or it is not. If it is valuable, its is unique and different. If it is not, it is a commodity.
Imagine two songwriters writing about love. One is so moved by passion and emotion that he feels compelled to write – for the same sorts of reasons that the first person who ever wrote a song. The other is getting a paycheck. An employer wants the next big hit. Cynical, but experienced, this person is an expert in the alchemy of pop.
One man sees the woman in his arms as truly unique, and cherishes her. The other sees her as just another fish in the sea, and leaves her.
One entrepreneur believes that ideas are cheap. He says, ‘You can come up with 10 a day, but waste your life on one! Don’t be too attached. Find an idea that lends itself to fast, easy execution. Ideas are commodities, execution is valuable.’ This is the opportunist.
Another believes that not all ideas are created equal. While many ideas could be profitable, and some would be easier, this one is qualitatively superior, and the best of all alternatives. It is more beautiful and significant. He says, ‘It takes roughly the same amount of effort to execute on any idea well, but in the end, the outcomes are not comparable - the best one will be worth more than all the rest combined. Ideas are valuable, execution is a commodity’. This is the visionary.
Never underestimate the servant of an idea
If you are a visionary, the idea deserves all the credit. You have ideas, but a vision is an idea that has you. Once it has revealed itself, in the full weight of all its power and glory, then it claims you.
If you are a visionary, you are the servant of an idea. It is bigger than you are. It is more important than you. It is worthy of all your effort. It is worthy of being made real. As long as you draw breath, you will put hammer to nails, and labor in its service.
From dust to dust. In the beginning you did not have money. If it is spent, but the job is not finished, it is a setback, but not the end. Finish what you began, if it is still worthy of beginning, and of finishing.
Do not underestimate your own power. Yes, you are one mere mortal in a vast universe, but you are also a virus. You are an agent of change. By lending your life force to this idea, you give it life. You are its host. As long as you persevere, so will it. If it is truly beautiful, then its time will come.
Time is not against you. Time is on your side.
Let’s suppose you meet 5 new people a week, which is a slow week here in the Valley. In a year, that’s 250 people. In 10 years, 2,500. In 40 years, 10,000. Unlike ever before, because of the internet, you will actually hold on to these people, and cultivate these relationships.
In the short run, there is uncertainty and gossip, and reputations fluctuate. In the long run, character tends to win out. People will value you and trust you for you, for your story, for your strengths, and even your eccentricities. You will be able to pick up the phone and in five minutes get business done that, when you were starting out, took a one year sales cycle.
On résiste à l'invasion des armées; on ne résiste pas à l'invasion des idées.
– You are the invasion.
We can take it!
Why am I writing this? I am writing this for myself. I need to hear this. I am also writing for my colleagues, who are so brave. Their bravery moves and inspires me. And for every founder and every team in this Valley – this place where people come from all over the world, because they believe in the beauty of their dreams, and they know that here (for if not here, where?) there is fertile ground for hope and applied effort – that is facing the challenges faced by that Anonymous Founder…
To you, this is for you…
I feel your pain, for it is my own. You are lonely, but you are not alone. We bear a heavy burden. I salute you.
Until recently, the stress kept building, until it affected my health. My heart would pound, both at mid-day and mid-night, while resting and at work, as my thoughts kept racing to dark possibilities. I would find myself suddenly breathing heavily. This is not normal, for a healthy man at twenty-four.
Then, while looking for a restroom in-between meetings in London, I walked into a bookstore. On my way out, I saw a title: “We Will All Go Down Fighting to the End”. It was a collection of Winston Churchill’s war speeches. I bought it and could not put it down. I read it in the Tube. I read it on the plane. It kept bringing me to tears.
Whenever I feel insignificant and powerless in the scheme of things, I just need to think about Churchill. This man, this one man, removed the possibility of defeat, not just for a war, but for Western Civilization. This man was brave. Truly brave and courageous. He stared down worse things than I can even imagine. He stared down a monster and a nightmare.
He came to power in one of the darkest moments in history. An evil man with evil ideas had conquered all of Europe. There were no allies left. Russia had a non-aggression pact. America was firmly isolationist. Britain’s army had barely escaped complete annihilation, trapped on French soil. Far away, Japan was marauding through all the Pacific. The morale of his people and resources of his country were depleted so heavily in the last war, that there was a strong movement to sue for peace.
He could have given up. But instead, and in full knowledge of the horror, pain, destruction and sacrifice it would require, he took the country to war.
Then, he did another remarkable thing. Instead of reassuring people, instead of telling them that it would be alright, he told them the bad news. He spoke of blood, sweat and tears. He told them, ‘we will fight them on the beaches, we will fight them on the streets, we will all go down fighting till the end!’
He told them, there can be no peace between us and Hitler. For what we stand for, and what he stands for, are such opposite things, that the only outcome we will accept, is unconditional victory. He held up a hope, like a single flame light in an expansive darkness, that one day, it would be over and freedom, at last, would triumph in the end.
The full wrath and might of the enemy fell on that Island. London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, and all the cities of England were bombed, day and night. Ships and submarines and armies encircled for an invasion. Days were dark. There were, indeed, blood, sweat, and tears.
Then, a miracle happened. The people, instead of giving in to exhaustion and fear, listened to his words. They understood what he was saying. They were fighting FOR A REASON. All the suffering meant something. And that reason, they discovered, was worth fighting for, and even worth dying for. It was a beautiful vision that had to do with freedom, limited government and human potential. The people began to stand erect and fight harder, drawing on some new reserve of strength. From the rubble, they cried out to Churchill, “WE CAN TAKE IT!”
They gave him the ultimate weapon. They found the will to fight. They believed. They believed and the world saw. Resistance was possible. There was another way. There was a vision that is worth fighting for.
Churchill’s pièce de résistance?
Never give in, never give in, never, never, never! In nothing, great or small, large or petty, never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force, never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the Enemy…
Listen to it.
Pearl Harbor was the proximate reason why America entered the war. The ultimate, the real, reason why America entered the war was because Churchill set the stage. The public was deeply moved by the bravery and nobility of their struggle. They identified with it. They knew which side they were on. There was moral high ground.
I have gone on, perhaps too long, telling a story that everybody knows. But it deserves to be remembered. Whenever my stress rises, when I am afraid and overwhelmed, I remind myself of Churchill, and his example makes me brave. Failure is when you lose the will to fight. We will all go down fighting to the end. Give us your worst. We can take it! Because we are fighting for a reason. Our idea is beautiful. It will win, because it is right. We cannot make peace with a world that it cannot exist in. We will only accept unconditional victory - this idea will come forth, like a flood, in an outpouring of the human spirit.
Even if we die, or fail, or give up, someone else, maybe somewhere far away, will see what we saw, and take up the cause. There is a kind of idea that is so beautiful, it is inevitable. For it will infect the mind of man. But let us bear the burden and the torch! If it is to be at all, then let it be us, here and now.
Great stories are full of darkness and danger
There was a professor at Oxford who lived through the war. Afterwards, he wrote a masterpiece called The Lord of the Rings. It was a great story, because he understood something profound…
We all have moments when we are on the verge of giving up. The decision to keep going, the act of holding on to what you are fighting for, is the act that makes a hero.
Frodo: I can’t do this, Sam.
Sam: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.
Watch this scene.
This is what it means to climb your Everest.
Lessons from the darkness
What have we learned from our encounters with darkness?
I do not enjoy hardship. I am tired of just surviving. I don’t want to escape by the skin of my teeth anymore. I want to thrive. I want to leave the wilderness and enter the Promised Land.
While I am here, though, I might as well learn, for it is an expensive education. Let’s summarize some insights we gained:
Until a start-up becomes a scale-up, unless you don’t require capital to finance development, you will always, by definition, face a payroll cliff. This is the nature of the beast.
A start-up is in a conversation with the capital markets, and there is imperfect communication. The capital markets may not appreciate or value what you are doing yet. That does not mean it is not valuable. It means you are going to have to inefficiently spend a huge percentage of your time raising capital, or doing consulting gigs, or bagging groceries, or doing whatever you have to do to keep going. In an ideal world, we would be able to make bold moves and long term investments.
The whole economy is asking and answering the question: what is valuable? Like Van Gogh, entrepreneurs can create something extremely valuable that is not appreciated until there is a shift in value perception.
There are ways to solve The Van Gogh Problem. One of the most powerful ways to solve it is to master the rhetorical power of language, like Winston Churchill, and inspire and persuade others to fight alongside you.
it is important to make a distinction between Proximate and Ultimate success and failure. Proximate success is winning a battle. Ultimate success is winning a war. If we optimize too much for proximate success, we can get better and better at winning battles, but still loose the war – like Vietnam. In Vietnam, the enemy never lost the will to fight, so they removed the possibility of defeat. To overcome the circumstances, you must transcend them.
It is important to figure yourself out as a founder. Are you an opportunist or a visionary? Which is more of a commodity: ideas or execution?
Do you see unappreciated value? Is the problem so severe, the solution so promising, that if you ran out of money, you would keep going, no matter what? Is the vision so beautiful, that it must be so?
If not, that’s okay: at least you have a framework for making a better, more informed, decision to quit.
If so, then the End is Certain.
It is just the middle that’s blood, sweat and tears.
It is just a matter of time.
The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.
– Eleanor Roosevelt
If— BY RUDYARD KIPLING
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
Credit where credit is due. I felt I ought to share a few of the people I look up to. They have an amazing ability to focus on the next step, while keeping the long road in view. They are playing a much bigger game, masterfully.
I want to celebrate them, because a wise man once told me, you get more of what you celebrate, and boy, do we need more of them: Zach Verdin at New Hive, Scott Zimmerman at Xola, Andrew Mangino at The Future Project, Peter Diamandis at the X Prize Foundation, Dave Morin at Path, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Larry & Sergey, and Peter Thiel.