Friday, February 11, 2011

A Startup. The Mission Is To Thrive. But Sometimes You Just Have To Survive.

by Brendan Morrissey, CEO of Netsertive, Inc. and startup veteran (2-11-2011)

Some see startups as glamorous, free from the bondage of a traditional job, or just generally exciting.  The reality of course is that, while it has some incredible benefits, it’s actually a massive pile of difficult and often tedious work with unclear rewards.  It requires constant creativity, 24/7 attention, lots of course-corrections, and a decent amount of vision.  People do it because it can be exciting to trail-blaze, learn at light-speed, and solve tough problems.  When focused on the destination of a new business and energized by the idea of achieving a well articulated vision, we can tolerate lots of short-term pain and uncertainty.  The pain tolerance and probability of success also increase as you build a team of great people, which is a far more important element than your idea, technology, or ground-breaking business model.

Like an experience in war or a serious survival situation, when you’ve been through a startup and come out the other end, the rewards can be enormous.  They come in the form of unique experiences, ability to rapidly learn and adapt, strong relationships, and a world view that is different from those who choose less-risky paths.  For some, there are even bigger tangible benefits such as positive career enablers or outsized financial gains.  To make a startup survive, you must create a good offering, make better-than-average tactical decisions, preserve resources, and take some calculated risks.  To thrive, you must do all those things even better, plus create a shared vision and bring in the right people with the right expectations, the right skills, and the ability to work together toward a common goal. 

In 1914, famed explorer Ernest Shackleton was preparing for his historic voyage to be the first to traverse Antarctica, and is said to have placed this simple ad in a London newspaper:
“Men wanted for hazardous journey.  Small wages.  Bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful.  Honor and recognition in case of success.”
As a startup entrepreneur or someone joining one, you should consider that message carefully.
Shackleton failed to complete his original mission, but he did modify his goal and achieve something remarkable.  His ship was crushed in the pack ice after nine months and he steadfastly led his men through a horrific tale of Antarctic survival over a year and a half.  Assumed dead by everyone back home, his epic leadership drove the eventual rescue of all 28 crew members after an inconceivable survival on ice floes and a small bleak island. In the ultimate exhibit of self-sufficiency and survival-driven decision making, Shackleton knew that self-rescue was their only hope and he made it happen in spite of the impossible circumstances. 
His mission had evolved into saving the crew, which he achieved with limited resources, crude navigation instruments, inadequate food, and a doubtful, shaken crew.  In perhaps the worst weather conditions on the planet, he made one key, calculated decision after another while facing, by anyone’s measure, the poorest odds of success. 

The dynamics in the startup world aren’t much different, though you probably won’t be fearing for your life on a daily basis (depending on your investors, of course J).    By definition, a startup is an endeavor to get somewhere with limited resources, many doubters, lots of seemingly insurmountable hurdles, long days, mind-bending problem solving, and motivational challenges.  It is the proverbial roller coaster ride with a mixed bag of rewards and problems.  But it’s also an incredible chance to chart the uncharted, to journey where others won’t or can’t go, to find creative ways to break new ground.  And when it’s thriving, the experience is second-to-none in a career.

If you think you’re ready to launch or join a startup, re-read that ad that Shackleton took out in 1914.  If you’re still so fired up by the end-goal that you’re ready to embrace the challenges, then take the leap and put your ideas into action.  But don’t do it half-way.  Go all in with your eyes wide open and don’t tinker for years in the garage.  Make a plan and make the startup your 100% endeavor.  Then you will be fully committed to surviving, which sets the stage for thriving.  Then you can get others involved by sharing your vision of success and the opportunity to do something great, colored with a realistic view of the risks, hardships and excitement that will no doubt ensue. 

Shackleton’s ship was called The Endurance.  There is probably no better word to describe the key characteristic that a new business and its people need in order to thrive.

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