Entrepreneurship – Busting Through the Fires of Hell

June 6, 2011

5:57 pm

Do you have what it takes to lead a startup?  Are you the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs?  Do you possess the common schizophrenic traits of endless energy and passion coupled with cool steely-eyed, ninja-assassin calm that keeps your head above water when all others are drowning?

More importantly are you  committed? Are you all-in? Are you ready to bet the kids college funds, your retirement, your sanity, your hockey game (big time, big company,  biz executives play golf, real entrepreneurs play hockey)?

There are two ways to play entrepreneur.  One is to dip your toe in the water and the other is to dive in head- first unconcerned that the water may be only 1 foot deep. In the case of the later, there are 2 possible outcomes 1) a horrible and yet quick demise or 2) a real chance at building something great.  The former is a recipe of missed opportunity, timid pusillanimous failure, and a slow death by 1,000 cuts.  The latter is the only valid reason that someone could justify the sacrifice of sanity, treasure and a huge friggin’ chunk of their life.  It is either a bright flame that burns out bright and glorious or that bursts into a guiding light star that inspires others to venture forth.

You know that expression, “Don’t burn your bridges?”  When Mark Zuckerberg left Harvard to start Facebook he didn’t hedge his bet to complete his valuable, fall-back, McKinsey consulting-enabling, BS degree.  He didn’t secure a job as a cubicle-dwelling, corporate programmer to insure that he had a steady income.  No he burned his bridges and moved to Silicon Valley.

When Cortez arrived in the new world, he didn’t hedge his bets, he burned his boats, totally committing himself and his conquistadors to finding El Dorado.  There was no turning back.

As a CEO of a start-up, your conquistadors need to see you display the same dedication to success. Which is not to say you should go out in the parking lot and burn their cars. It is to say that they need to see that you have faith in your vision of El Dorado and that you are totally committed and capable to lead them there.

You see, if you aren’t willing to put your career, income, and serenity at risk,  you’re probably fooling yourself about being an entrepreneur, a founder, a start-up leader, and here’s why:

  1. It Ain’t Easy – This stuff is hard! It’s difficult, it ain’t easy until it is easy and by the time it’s easy all the difficult stuff is behind you and you now you earned the right to take up golf.  Having an escape route in the form of boats safely anchored off-shore, or a bridge to the past or a day job, is where entrepreneurs are tempted to run when they get the snot knocked out of them, while the gal walking the wire with no safety net is all-in.  She’s going to cross that wire because she starves if she stays on this side of the platform.  She knows she has a much better chance of survival by walking the wire to the other side, and so she does.
  2. It Ain’t Fun – Since it isn’t easy, it isn’t fun.  There are so many things an entrepreneur has to do that are uncomfortable.  Beg for business, favors, money.  Ask the same people over and over again who said no to you 3 times prior because maybe you’ve improved your position, or possibly they’re in a more generous mood, or maybe the moon is in the 7th house.  How many times does a person subjugate themselves when they can retreat to the comfortable environs of well-defined, focused responsibility down a well worn path even if it means being a cube farmer? The guy who’s all-in with both feet and no back-up plan – he has no where to hide from the flames.  His only choice is to burst through them.
  3. It Ain’t Glamorous – Every day brings bad news, constant closed doors, bugs that get worked out only to reveal the next snag.  Long hours, tight budgets, bill collectors, missed dates, friends and family to which you owe money.  Until you have that breakthrough success, you’re a loser.  And for every company that breaks through to success there are 2o carcases of road kill that failed on the way.  Every startup entrepreneur is future road-kill until he’s made it.  Being a future dead squirrel doesn’t get you a good table at The Palm, dates or guest appearances on SNL. So after a few knocks, you put your head down in your cube and you produce results for “The Man.”

In my 30 years of business experience, I have never seen a part-time hobbyist entrepreneur make it.  I’m sure someone has, and yet I know from experience the odds are against them. Being a part-time startup CEO with a day job is kind of like being a snow bunny at the ski lodge who has all the right gear, all the right outfits, and goes shopping and gets a massage and her hair done while everyone else is on the slopes, then parties like a skier till late in the night when the slopes are closed. You can go to all the lean-start meetups that you like.  But in the end, you’re a hobbyist.  You may call yourself an entrepreneur but I’m sorry, you’re not.

You hope someday to make it big, yet circumstances, reality, fear have a grip on you and you’re not ready to face the fires of hell.


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Glen Hellman (@glehel), is an angel investor, serial entrepreneur, and works for venture capitalists as a turn-around specialist. He is the Chief Entrepreneureator at Driven Forward LLC, frequently muses on his blog, Forward Thinking, and works with entrepreneurs to help them figure out what to do and get them to do it.

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