Posts Tagged ‘Paul Graham’

Life, death & startups..

January 7, 2010

How many times have you heard the saying life is Too short. Thing is, there is much truth in this. Jeffery Walker’s recent untimely death from cancer and seeing the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button got me really thinking about life and death. It’s also got me thinking where startups fit into life’s equation. Life’s challenge is we only have a short time to work out what we really want from it. In many ways having a startup or fulfilling your dreams brings  self understanding, personal growth and even enlightenment.

The final words in life (Blade Runner, 1982)

Entrepreneurial stories and the movies are a great reflections of life. The alter ego fictional Fight Club character Tyler Durden said “This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.” Reflective life films and the death of someone you know creates self-reflective questions.  Are you happy living the life you live or would you rather being doing something else. Would you rather have a different job? Or desire a startup company?

“First, you have to know, not fear, know that someday you are going to die. Until you know that, you have no sense of urgency. You think you have all the time in the world to do amazing things, but you may not live to see that particular someday.” Another Tyler Durden quote

In Steve Jobs wonderful speech after surviving cancer “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life”. Steve went onto repeat Breaker Morant quote, which he’s lived by since the age of 17,  “Live every day as if it were your last and then some day you’ll be right.”

I’ve found in life that when you’re doing  something new and challenging in an intense short space of time period, time  seem to slow down. Learning and keeping your experiences new and fresh is so important in life.  It brings a life full of rich and varied experiences. Paul Graham says that working in startups “seem like time slows down”. It’s because there is such an incredible amount to learn in a young company. Paul goes onto say in his great 2006 essay post The Hardest Lessons for Startups to Learn:

“..there’s nothing particularly grand about making money. That’s not what makes startups worth the trouble. What’s important about startups is the speed. By compressing the dull but necessary task of making a living into the smallest possible time, you show respect for life, and there is something grand about that.

The character Benjamin Button said “When it comes to the end you have to let it all go.” Why wait until the end when it’s too late.. We can all choose what we do with our lives, no matter what our age is. “Every passing moment is a chance to turn it all around.” Look forward and don’t dwell in the past or you will just stay there lost. We can choose to hold onto negative emotions such as fear, doubt and anger or let them go and fulfill your dreams doing something you really enjoy.

I regard making money as a boring errand to be got out of the way as soon as possible. There is nothing grand or heroic about starting a startup per se.

The challenge in life is that  we only have a short time to work out what we really want from it. Some would call the discovery of a life’s purpose or understanding as enlightenment. Wikipedia defines ‘Enlightenment broadly as wisdom or understanding enabling clarity of perception‘, ‘full comprehension of a situation’ and ‘a state of freedom from suffering, desire and ignorance’. In many ways having challenging experiences and doing something you love brings deeper self understanding and personal enlightenment.


“Running a start-up is like being punched in the face repeatedly”*

September 10, 2009

In my experience of working for a large global software manufacturer and now having my own software startup Paul Graham* is spot on. Paul said  Running a start-up is like being punched in the face repeatedly… but working for a large company is like being waterboarded.” (Waterboarding is a form of torture involving simulated drowning.)

I’ve found the bigger the company the more market power you have  but the less freedom you have as an individual. However having startup’s freedom means getting  rejected   (‘punched’) continually as you have virtually no market power. Get used to it and come out fighting because startup and small companies are more fun.


The ultimate punch in Matrix Revolutions, 2003

During my career I’ve worked for several small and medium companies and one of the world greatest ever tech corporations, Novell Inc. People generally open doors warmly when you’re from a large corporate enterprise but in the startup they often don’t even give you the time of day.

The Big Corporate Enterprise

When I joined Novell they were enjoying a temporary revival with Eric Smidt at the helm. Interestingly Eric is now the CEO of Google.  Even during Novell’s decline I always remember the feeling of power when I meet customers and partners. They all took you seriously. Even prospective customers, partners and ex-customers would welcome you in.  Novell and other corporate enterprise’s have huge amounts of market power.

Market Power

By market power I’m referring to a company’s credibility. Being creditable reduces the customers perceived risks and often increases trust. From my experience market power is derived from having several of the following:

  1. Customers Referable large company and well known household name customers.
  2. Partnerships – creditable partnerships with creditable leading companies.
  3. International service/product – Effective provision of services across the globe.
  4. Scalable service/product – The capacity to take on new large scale orders and customers without over-stretching.
  5. significant assets – Whether is be customer base, IP, financial or contractual assets.

As an employee working for a large enterprise you are riding on this power. Unfortunately decisions and change happens very, very  slowly and painfully within the corporate enterprise. The large companies often rely on the status quo. There is certainty in the corporate world for the company and the employee.

To get on in the large company you have to be a good corporate citizen . This means towing the line, keeping you head down and doing as your told even if you don’t believe in it. It can become torture for many. What makes all of this worthwhile is the pay and the perks. However there is more to life than money…

The Small to Medium Size Company

This size of company sits somewhere between the giant corporate company and the startup. They’re often in partnership with the big companies, reselling or distributing their goods or services. The effect of having referable customers and being involved with a large stable enterprise company brings credibility. This increases the smaller companies market power.  However they often still lack market power because they’re not making an embedded product or service product.

The good thing about working as an employee for smaller companies is that you get paid and the decision making progress is shorter and therefore quicker. This means as an individual you have more freedom than within the corporate environment. However as a small company you have to fight alot harder to survive. Interestingly some larger companies like Virgin Group, Ltd and WL Gore & Associates, Inc have successfully divided into small units  to act  and feel more like smaller companies.

The Startup

You love your startup like nobody else. You believe  your product is a world beater but unfortunately very few will agree.  As a startup you have no market power unless you have a track record of previous startups. Again and again you will get “punched in the face” by people all around: customer’s,  partners and investors. Graham says “everyone has a problem with your product” .

As a founder you have to draw strength from somewhere. Graham says “uncertainty” abounds, “as well as a persistent fear that a single bad decision could doom the whole enterprise” and “the gut-wrenching period when you realize that success isn’t going to come quickly or easily”.

Your strength may be your family/partner, friends or an inner driver of your vision of the future. Something has to drive you. And it has to drive you hard to gain market power. However a startup is something very special. Many only dream of having one. A startup brings the idea of freedom. The freedom to create and grow something of your own.

It’s very interesting to see people from all three types of companies sharing public discussions. Now I look back on my career the differences are amazing. The corporate citizens often lack passion, individuality and an inner drive. From all my years of experience I enjoy working for startup and small companies the most. They give you a sence of purpose, belonging and fun. Unfortunately the pay sucks in a startup but then money is not everything 😉

The source of entrepreneurial determination

August 12, 2009

My MBA in Entrepreneurship didn’t refer much to  the importance of determination. Yet I believe that being determined is a key quality for entrepreneurs. Since I’ve been immersed in the real world of startups I found this idea to be very true.

Rachel Elnaugh calls it the “pit” which you have climb out and Seth Godin named it the “dip” that you must see beyond. Paul Graham says its “The most important quality in a startup founder. Not intelligence– determination.” (point 5). But what does it mean to be determined?

terminator_fireThe Terminator movie

The Terminator machine has absolute determination to achieve its single objective. Entrepreneurs derive their determination from:

  1. Focus – There is alot of talk in business schools about vision and strategy.  A vision brings something to aim for. Laurence Peter said “If you don’t know where you are going, you will probably end up somewhere else.” With so much to do in a startup it can be overwhelming. Time can easily to burnt on doing things that don’t really matter.  Determination brings the focus needed to work on the things that do matter.
  2. Belief – Because startups have limited resources they have to believe in their vision.  The founders have to be determined  to energise  enough new resources to reach their goal. Mahatma Gandhi,  “If I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.” If  founders don’t believe in what they are doing no one else will and others aren’t going to help.
  3. Committed – There’s is no getting away from it. Startups are hard work . The entrepreneur has to  fully commit and be determined to make the startup work. Peter Drucker said “Unless commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes; but no plans.”  The entrepreneur has to sacrifice other parts of their life’s to make it work.
  4. Consistency – Most business is based upon trust. Potential customers need to know that a supplier will deliver on their promises and they will be around in the future. The trouble is trust takes time to build up.  If the entrepreneur chops and changes too much this trust will not buildup. Patience and persistence on a single course is necessary. Build momentum through each successive achievement towards the startups overarching goal.
  5. Think skinned – Entrepreneurs are well known for their determination and tenacity. They have to be thick skinned to survive the startup emotional roller coaster. Everyone will give advice and “hundreds of people will tell you your idea is rubbish” says Richard Reed the co-founder of Innocent Drinks. They may even think the entrepreneur is insane. The entrepreneur has to be determined to press ahead if they believe in an idea.
  6. Flexible –  There is no point in flogging a dead startup idea! Once a new venture is started it can be difficult to see the difference between a set back or an idea that will never fly. Seth Godin believes that successful entrepreneurs know the difference between a dead-end and  natural dips. A startup vision and plan needs to be broad enough to accept change.
  7. Lucky – Entrepreneurs need to be lucky people. However, as  Ernest Hemingway said, “You make your own luck”. If the entrepreneur is  determined and locates themselves often enough in the right place where things can happen, they eventually will.

James Dyson is a classic case of determination. In 1983 his new idea was rejected by all the major house hold vacuum cleaner manufactures. He had the focus,  belief and commitment to manufacturer the new idea himself in 1993. During 2005 Dyson took a massive a 20.7% US marketshare compared to Hoover’s 15.6%.

Determination keeps us going when we loose all hope. Its when everyone and everything seems to be going against us. Determination is the spirit of innovation, entrepreneurship and being human. As Thomas A. Edison said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”