I have recently discovered the most unexpectedly wonderful show on Netflix called The Chef’s Table. Though my intention was to quiet my mind by watching the equivalent of chewing gum on television, I came away feeling like Alexander Fleming having accidentally uncovered penicillin! Hyperbole aside, each of the three episodes that I have now watched bettered the previous, with the latest episode about Francis Mallmann resonating with me in a very deep and compelling way. Captivated by the unusual and inspiring human story, the Mallmann segment best expresses many of my own feelings, thoughts and outlook about risk.
The life of a founder is filled with stress and uncertainty. There is immense risk in not earning an income whilst burning through your savings in pursuit of an idea that is statistically likely to fail. In fact, some of the most hard-nosed founders can go for years slowly chipping away their goals, all-the-while gradually depleting their savings account and postponing the economic responsibilities that a family would entail. Many other founders flounder for about a year or so, helplessly trying to will their start-up into existence before eventually running out of steam, cash or both. Cash aside (I don’t even want to get started on the virtually non-existent venture capital scene in Australia), I want to explore my experience in what drives founders to do what they do, and what eventually forces them to give up.
I like the idea of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (pictured above), partly because I see a lot of sense in the model, and partly because I really like analogies which involve triangles (pyramids and funnels too). I tend to think of needs 1 through 3 as needs that are paramount to disenfranchised people. These are so fundamental that, not having them met is a sign that things are really awry. Survivors of war, depression and severe discrimination would view these as the zenith of the pyramid. Fair enough, after-all, who the hell cares if you can’t “actuate” yourself if you can’t first feed yourself. I think that in the most part, Gen Xers and Baby Boomers would typically not look past point 3 or 4 because of the aforementioned reasons. Hence, the focus on owning a home, starting a family and laying down roots. In one way or another needs 1 through to 3 are all met with these things. However, perhaps the inertia for these needs to be met is too great. Is it fair, just, or wise for kids graduating school to view their future as stable progression from one milestone (like getting a mortgage) to another (like getting married)? After all
“all of us should conquer something in life”
as Mallmann argues. But conquering is simply not a risk that is allowed for in the framework that would see people work nine to five, five days a week.
Enter founders. I classify myself as part of a fortunate hoard of fiends and fools trying to do something out of the ordinary and unusual. And there is nothing grandiose about what I am saying. In fact, I freely acknowledge how lucky I am not to have to worry about the first four rungs of Maslow’s pyramid. That is, I don’t worry about these thingsmost of the time. However, occasionally I succumb to the pressures of society and ponder the viability of the path I have chosen. I know my worth in the corporate world, and I can clearly see the opportunity cost of not pursuing the path of my friends and colleagues. My Facebook and Linkedin profiles sing sweet siren songs of the path not chosen, every time I log in. But, like Odysseus I strap myself to the mast of my intentions by perhaps foolishly, publicly announcing new start-ups, or funding the development of the next really cool piece of tech I believe to be ingenious with rarefied personal savings.
This brings me nicely back to risk. I think it is fair to say, that after spending the last five years experimenting with start-ups, my risk tolerance has most certainly increased. Boy have I lost a lot of money. Yes, I have also embarrassed myself several times. My guts also hurt from being continuously pummeled by the rejections of customers and investors. But I’m still doing it.
“Why?” would be a sensible question to ask of a person such as myself. The truth of the matter is that the glimpses of success that I have seen provide rocket fuel for my ego. That, in addition to the great personal and technical lessons I have learned, make the struggle worthwhile. One of the things that start-ups teach you is to execute. Getting stuff done is so important especially in a bootstrapped operation. Unlike the corporate world, there are no lower level employees or experts to do things. There is you, and maybe a cohort of interns and cheap offshore resources to help you along the way. That has meant that I have had to wear the hats of a CTO, a CFO, a CMO and a COO in all of my start-ups. In absence though is the role of a CEO. Because in my mind, the chief function of a CEO is inspiration. Only recently have I uncovered the utmost importance of maintaining inspiration.
Inspiration is the single most important factor in maintaining an optimistic and upbeat state of mind for me. In turn, when the mind brims, the work follows. Funnily enough, for me, inspiration does not come from biographies (like Steve Jobs & Elon Musk) or founder stories. I actually find myself becoming overly anxious, frustrated and envious when I expose myself to these sources. For me, inspiration comes from the occasional TED talk, a good science fiction novel, talented funny people, interesting podcasts and good TV shows (hence my earlier reference to The Chef’s Table). These art-forms engage my mind in an exercise of exploration and contemplation of topics well outside the realm of my start-up.
So far, I have managed not to fall from the tight-rope of STACK – my latest start-up. Partly, it is because I have been very conscious about avoiding many of the mistakes I made with my prior start-ups. I have also learned to be a little more patient and less self-critical. I have also mitigated many of the costs of starting up with a handful of consulting clients through Coltrane, and I have actively been seeking out inspiration and busying/distracting my mind. I have found these strategies useful in focusing efforts and maintaining momentum. After everything is said and done, I have to believe in the virtue of “the call of the wild”, and with that I would like to leave you with my new favourite poem by Robert Service, introduced to me by Francis Mallmann.
The Call of the Wild
Have you gazed on naked grandeur
where there’s nothing else to gaze on,
Set pieces and drop-curtain scenes galore,
Big mountains heaved to heaven, which the blinding sunsets blazon,
Black canyons where the rapids rip and roar?
Have you swept the visioned valley
with the green stream streaking through it,
Searched the Vastness for a something you have lost?
Have you strung your soul to silence?
Then for God’s sake go and do it;
Hear the challenge, learn the lesson, pay the cost.
Have you wandered in the wilderness, the sagebrush desolation,
The bunch-grass levels where the cattle graze?
Have you whistled bits of rag-time at the end of all creation,
And learned to know the desert’s little ways?
Have you camped upon the foothills,
have you galloped o’er the ranges,
Have you roamed the arid sun-lands through and through?
Have you chummed up with the mesa?
Do you know its moods and changes?
Then listen to the Wild — it’s calling you.
Have you known the Great White Silence,
not a snow-gemmed twig aquiver?
(Eternal truths that shame our soothing lies).
Have you broken trail on snowshoes? mushed your huskies up the river,
Dared the unknown, led the way, and clutched the prize?
Have you marked the map’s void spaces, mingled with the mongrel races,
Felt the savage strength of brute in every thew?
And though grim as hell the worst is,
can you round it off with curses?
Then hearken to the Wild — it’s wanting you.
Have you suffered, starved and triumphed,
groveled down, yet grasped at glory,
Grown bigger in the bigness of the whole?
“Done things” just for the doing, letting babblers tell the story,
Seeing through the nice veneer the naked soul?
Have you seen God in His splendors,
heard the text that nature renders?
(You’ll never hear it in the family pew).
The simple things, the true things, the silent men who do things —
Then listen to the Wild — it’s calling you.
They have cradled you in custom,
they have primed you with their preaching,
They have soaked you in convention through and through;
They have put you in a showcase; you’re a credit to their teaching —
But can’t you hear the Wild? — it’s calling you.
Let us probe the silent places, let us seek what luck betide us;
Let us journey to a lonely land I know.
There’s a whisper on the night-wind,
there’s a star agleam to guide us,
And the Wild is calling, calling. . .let us go.