The New Theorem on Startup Agita and Angst

January 24, 2012

11:30 am

In the world, there are certain immutable physical laws. We  all know them.  You know, you’ve got your Newton’s Law of Gravity, your  Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Moore’s Law…and now there’s my Theorem of Agita and Angst.

  • Newton – What goes up will come down
  • Einstein – E = mc2
  • Moore – Computing performance will double every 2 years and prices will halve
  • Mr. Cranky – Where there is no agita or angst, there is no progress or growth

It is my contention that where there is contentment there is complacency, and where there is complacency there is crappy execution.

There are multiple examples of my theorem demonstrated in our every day lives.  Take commercial airline flights: You rarely see pilot errors when landing at difficult airports like DC’s Reagan National Airport, where they must follow a winding river, navigate around the canyon of skyscrapers known as Rosslyn, VA and stay away from the monuments of DC.  Adrenalin is flowing, senses are heightened and mistakes are minimized.  Statistically more accidents occur in simple-approach, easy airports like Miami, where the pilot comes in over the flat, uninhabited Everglades, in a slow, uneventful, and mind-numbing descent.

The same is true in startups.  Recently, a startup founder said to me that she was reluctant to hire a more aggressive sales executive because it would cause stress for her operations team.  Well guess what?  If your operations team isn’t feeling stress, then sell more stuff and create some stress – or you have too many operations folks.

In the early days of Relational Database Management Systems (RDBMS), there were 4 great companies competing for dominance:

  1. Ingress– The first mini-computer RDBMS widely recognized as the best technical solution, primarily only available on proprietary Digital Equipment Computers (DEC)
  2. Unify– The first Unix RDBMS
  3. Informix– The best choice for cross platform support (Unix, HP, DEC, PC)
  4. Oracle – The winner

One of the many Oracle jokes from the era of these database battles was, “Question: What platform does Oracle run on best (platform meaning system, like PC, Unix, DEC, etc).  Answer: PowerPoint.”

That’s because their salespeople sold the crap out of it – they sold features that didn’t yet exist.  They captured market share from more suitable products by outselling the competition.  It drove the implementation people nuts.  Salespeople at Oracle were ground up and spit out like wood in a wood chipper. In fact ,the other Oracle joke of the day was there are only two kinds of sales people at Oracle, a) those that made their numbers last year and b) the new guys.

You can bet your butt that there was stress throughout Oracle in those days.  The salespeople were under stress to keep their jobs, the operations folks were under stress from customers threatening to sue because they were sold functionality that didn’t yet exist, and the accountants were under pressure to ensure that the rabidly aggressive sales force booked deals that met Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. The company was a tinderbox.

Yet, you know what? Today there is only one of those companies standing, and it isn’t the company that defined the space, it isn’t the company that was recognized for the best technical solution, and it certainly wasn’t the company whose work force went walking arm-in-arm down the street singing Kumbaya.  No, it was the company that created a lot of stress, pushed the envelope, and nearly grew past its ability to survive.

So let me ask you this: When you step into your office, do you get a feeling of zen-like calm? Is each day at the office like a day at the beach? Is that beach on the island of Maui – or is it the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944?

Think about it, and decide if you want your company to be a cautionary entrepreneurial tale like that of Ingress? Or would you rather be an Oracle? There’s definitely a middle ground, so decide what you want to be.  Maybe a little well-managed, controlled stress can be a good thing.

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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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