I had lunch today at El Cerrito with an old friend from college who has done a number of successful startups. We talked of old classmates, children, the energy we had in our twenties, his new son, and my new granddaughter. And we talked about what it was like to do a startup. He left me with two words pictures that I have transcribed below, because I think they capture two different aspects of startups.
The first is the startup experience as a hurdles race:
Doing a startup is like running a high hurdles race early in the morning before the fog has burned off and before the setup crew has all of the hurdles positioned correctly.
The starting gun goes off and you can see perhaps a dozen feet in front of you. You can hear the grunts of the other racers and the scuff of shoes on the track. You take off running and the first hurdle appears out of the fog. You clear it easily and then realize that you are slowing down slightly, expecting the next one, but the setup crew has not put it out.
Then suddenly it’s in front of you and you barely clear up. You can hear some of the other runners stumbling but ahead you hear others racing ahead of you.
You have to set a pace to catch them but you cannot just put your head down and run because you have to keep a lookout for another hurdle to appear at the limit of your fogbound vision.
The second was based on several experiences he had working with VC’s. An avid cyclist, he thought of the entrepreneurial journey with a VC as having two distinct phases: in the pack and near the finish line.
Working with VC’s is like a bicycle race. At first you are all in the pack and everyone works together, alternating position to draft and move faster together than the solo leaders.
But as the finish line appears the pack breaks up as each cyclist tries to cross it first. Even if the VC’s have been good partners for most of the journey, they can’t resist the temptation to break away and gain the advantage at the finish line.
- “Your twenties are always an apprenticeship, but you don’t always know what for.” Jan Houtema
- A great quote that I used again in April 2008 but couldn’t source it. Paul Graham has it in his quote list. But while Houtema is a legitimate surname, I can’t find the one named Jan. I suspect, like Tara Ploughman, this is another pseudonym Graham has adopted.
- Steve Blank offers a framework for evaluating startup leadership requirements in “I‘ve seen the Promised Land and I might not get here with you” that addresses all of situations my friend describe: hurdles, the pack, and the end of the bicycle race.