Nowadays, entrepreneurship is a major topic. It has to do with a shifting mindset in the younger generations (“Instead of starting my career working for someone else, I will start by being my own boss”), an economy where entrepreneurship is increasingly facilitated and rewarded.
The market has also become a job market that does not offer the same kind of short or long term advantages or benefits that it has in the past. Thus, the mushrooming of startups and of entire ecosystems designed to accompany these startups, seems to be actually moving toward a sort-of, “startup factory."
Yet, in spite of this justified enthusiasm for the creation of new enterprises, it still remains that starting a business, let alone making it successful, is a mighty difficult endeavor. For those considering “taking the jump,” I just want to share a few thoughts on the less glamorous aspects of entrepreneurship.
To make my points, I am going to use 5 rather famous quotes.
1 - “Ave Caesar, morituri te salutante!" » Roman gladiators before they started to fight in the arena.
Believe or not, the gladiators who entered the Roman arenas to fight for the entertainment of the masses and the wealthy had a better chance to survive the “experience” than today’s startups. Gladiators had a 1 in 10 (at best) to 1 in 5 (at worst) chance to die. Today’s startup casualty rate is 9 in 10 (after 24 to 36 months).
The reasons for this atrocious attrition rate in startups are varied and well known. Lack of a proper business plan. No real market for the products or services. Lack of the proper financing. Poor execution. These are “diseases” that affect not only the "just-born businesses," but the giant corporations as well. The biggest difference is that what might be considered a mild cold for a big company rapidly turns into a terminal illness for a startup. Think of it as a baby who has not yet had the time to build up her/his immune system or one who has under developed lungs.
You may wonder if there are ways to make sure your enterprise survives its infancy. There are ways to increase the odds but no real “magic solution” to ensure success. Even with good planning, a product that is spot on, the proper funding and the proper team - nothing is guaranteed. As another saying goes: “A startup is always one step away from heaven, and one step away from hell.”
Consider this: when Christopher Columbus set out sails on August 3, 1492 on the Santa Maria, he was intent on finding a route to the East Indies (Asia). Instead, on October 12th of the same year, the island of San Salvador (in the Caribbean) appeared on the horizon. Needless to say that embarking on a 62 foot ship to sail westward to find a new route to Asia, was, in and of itself, a “project” far more risky than any of todays’ startups.
Columbus’s “magic recipe?” His relentless drive and conviction that he was going to survive and succeed. Short of demonstrating the same kind of certainty, as an entrepreneur, you will fail.
2 - “It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll.” AC/DC Australian rock band.
If you read (and believe) the headlines, your startup is going to go like this:
“One day I will have an idea that will revolutionize the world. Then I will get funded by presenting a 2 pages of a business plan. We will then build the product on time. As soon as this product is released, a mass of customers will buy it (or use it).
Of course, we continue, "We will soon raise more money at astronomical valuations. Our company will become a unicorn. I, the CEO, will be on TV every week. And, a giant company (take your pick), will purchase our startup for gargantuan amounts of money. Twelve months after starting up, I will be rich and famous.”
Yes, We All Got The Memo
I have news for you. The probability that this scenario is going to happen are so low that you may as well buy a lottery ticket and face better odds.
Many of today (and yesterday) technology powerhouses seemed to have been built over the span of a few weeks or months. Nothing can be further from the truth.
It took four (4) years for Facebook to go from zero users to 100 million. It took TEN (10) years until they reached 1.4 billion. By any standard, the growth of Facebook has been phenomenal. Yet, by any standards, their success has been measured in years, not weeks or months. We are talking about the most successful social network of all times. And by the way, it took 4 years for WhatsApp to go from zero to 200 million users.
Need I mention the huge amounts of cash it required in both cases!
So if you believe that success will come fast, think again. When you launch a startup, even one that has the potential of changing the world as we know it, the revolution will not happen overnight. And you are looking at years of effort, sometimes struggle, in front of you. Get ready for it!
Building a business takes time, is often frustrating in its initial phases, and requires a steady dose of determination and staying the course for a while before you can catch your breath.
3 - “The man who moves mountains begins with carrying small stones.” Confucius.
Your dream is big, and it should be. You want to change the world. Wonderful. Now, how do you do that?
Simple: one step at a time!
I was once part of a study group funded by NASA called “Advanced Space Propulsion Systems.” We were a bunch of mildly to severely “deranged” space “experts” intent on finding novel (today we would say “disruptive”) ways to enable space travel. We discussed space propulsion with giant rotating tethers (say, 100 km long) to mining deuterium on the moon. At one of those meetings, a leader in our group said, “Guys, what would it take to organize the Olympic Games in space.” Then the entire group turn to me: “Hey, you are the engineer here. How do we do that?”
Well, over the course of several weeks, I produced an operational plan to do just that. Starting with what kind of “stadium” it would require and ending with a launch schedule for the hundreds of Shuttle flights we would need, spanning something like 10 years. A step by step “plan” to lift millions of pounds of payload and a few thousand people into space. (By the way, you may question why the government would fund that kind of nonsense - go read some of Elon Musk’s declarations on space exploration and you will understand he has not invented much. He was preceded by a few of us who had those dreams before. At that time, these thoughts were then called “dreams,” today they are called “visions.”)
Whatever you have set out to achieve, you need a plan. A way to get from A to Z. A path that you can communicate and operationalize. It may or may not be a realistic plan or even achievable. But unless you have a plan, your idea will be just that: an idea. To make it palatable to those who will join you on the journey, let alone those who will provide the funding for it, you need to convey a sense of “feasibility.”
The pyramids were built with a plan and a method. Your enterprise needs a “step by step” plan as well.
(By the way, I would encourage all of you, aspiring entrepreneurs to read Jules Verne’s books. If you are an engineer, start with “From the Earth to the Moon.” It is an absolutely exquisite essay of pseudo-engineering.)
4 - “One man can make a crucial ingredient on a team, but one man cannot make a team.” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, NBA legend.
You had the idea and the enthusiasm to create a business around it. You left your job, and embarked on this amazingly energizing journey: the creation of your own business. There are, however, very few businesses where it will be possible to go from creation to some form of success on your own. You will need a team.
Building a team can be extremely rewarding and frustrating at the same time. Sometimes (or often times with startups) on the same day. Let us dissect what it really means to build a team: recruiting, motivating, rewarding, optimizing, retaining.
If you think marriage is tricky, think again since building a team is like several marriages at the same time with some of these unions involving people other than you (the relationship between the team members, and you are acting as a marriage counsellor).
Yet, as Kareem said (as a Lakers fan, he is one of my favorites), no single person can “make a team." The chemistry is delicate. The balance often hard to find. The lack of either chemistry or balance is always destructive. It will fall upon you, the founder, to be the glue for your team. As a matter of fact, it will be one of your primary jobs.
To be the leader will come on top of all the other jobs you will have to do. There are a number of tasks that you will be able, and to be honest, should “outsource” to others. Ensuring the cohesion, performance and durability of your team is NOT one of them. So be prepared to be a “peoples' person” 24/7.
5 - “It is lonely at the top.” Unknown author.
Another way of putting it is:
“Success has many fathers (or mothers), failure is an orphan.” I have been CEO four times. I surrounded myself with very high power, smart, dedicated individuals. Yet, there were always times when I was left alone with a problem and a decision that only I could make.
That is what you have to prepare yourself for: making a decision, that you, and only you can make, one that will have existential consequences for your enterprise, good, bad and otherwise.
You may - actually you must - seek advice from those around you. Challenge and be challenged. Follow your gut and be rational at the same time. In the end, some day, all this will amount to YOU making a very decisive call.
And, at that moment, you will be alone with your decision and its consequences. There is nothing ominous or even scary about it. It is the nature of entrepreneurship.
I ride horses. There is room for only ONE saddle on a horse. The saddle seats ONE person. Same for a fledging enterprise or a Fortune 100 company for that matter. Whereas most decisions can safely be made by consensus, only the decisions that will make or break your business will land on your lap. It is the way it is (and probably it should be). Thus be prepared. Be prepared to wrestle with some very tough calls while those around you wait for your words. “The buck stops here.” (A sign that was on President Harry Truman’s desk.) Yes it does…
Once you have read all of this article, however sobering it might sound, and you still want to embark on the entrepreneurship train, do not think twice. Just do it.
Think about this: on the 17th of December, 1903, Orville Wright piloted the first aerial vehicle (today we would call it a “plane”) over a 852 feet flight lasting 59 seconds. Much ado has always been made about the guts it took to take off. Indeed.
But, once airborne, the most pressing issue became: “How do I land safely?” (Something, of course, no one had ever done.)
Every entrepreneur is just like Orville: you have a dream, you will do whatever it takes to get it accomplished, you may eventually take off, and then you will need to figure out how to land.
The Wright brothers did it, and so can you.