I just finished reason a really terrific book, Born To Run, by Christopher McDougall. An acquaintance suggested that I read it after I mentioned that I recently started and am loving barefoot trail running. I’m very grateful that she followed through and got the book to me.
It’s a shaggy-dog story that leads through the crazy world of ultra marathons, the Sierra Madre and the Tarahumara, and the top distance coaches, biologists, and anthropologists. I ended up understanding why I am running with joy for the first time since I left childhood, and a little bit more about humans beings. (Photo of a Tarahumara running is McDougall’s)
Turns out that persistence, and our natural ability to run long distances are both critical to our species success. (Yes, running is natural - but you’ll have to read the book or at least watch the video at the end of this post to get that story). Our ancestors hunted, and out-hunted our competitors, the Neanderthals, by running our prey into the ground. We ran long and easy, in teams. We chased an antelope until it literally dropped dead.
All if which got me to thinking about start-ups.
I’ve been told - often - that I’m persistent to a fault. Many knowledgeable folks say that persistence is a key attribute of successful entrepreneurs, though I don’t claim to be any proof of that. How could I use my persistence as a strategic advantage?
I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do next yet, but the lead contender today is a project I’m working on with a few great guys who are building a proof of concept that we will be ready to market in the fall. We figure that if we can sell it that’s proof that it’s a good idea and we’re off to the races. If not we won’t have lost much. The idea isn’t earth-shattering, but it would make life a ton easier for a lot of people.
There are many reasons that we think it’s smart strategically. First, the solution is very simple in a field of the very complex; simplicity and elegance are attractive. Second, I like the model - it’s analogous to Salesforce.com in the early days, when salespeople expensed individual accounts because the tool was so much better than Siebel, which they were supposed to be using (this was before Salesforce became Siebel). Third, it’s fun to take on the big guy with something small. It’s a Kopppelman value-destroying idea. And there are a long list of others like the supporting trends, the teams’ experience and expertise, on and on.
The truth is, though, that I was drawn to the opportunity primarily because I think that I’ve devised a way to start and grow it without outside capital. I’ve raised many rounds of venture capital, and I’ve worked with great (and horrible) investors. I’m ready to do it without them, I think. That has less to do with dilution than it does loss of control, and what I see as fundamental issues in the VC-entrepreneur model (I’ll post about that someday).
What I realized, thinking about persistence in the start-up context, is that internally-financed growth is the business version of persistence. It’s a weapon. When you can run longer than your prey, you get to eat them for lunch. When you raise outside capital, get into the habit of burning cash for growth, you have to keep raising money to run. When you provide enough value that customers are happy to pay more than it costs you to produce that value, you can run forever. You’re free.
Of course, there’s a trade-off: slower growth. There’s only so fast that an internally-financed company can grow. Look at the wacky counter-example, the fastest growing company in history, Groupon - it's hemorrhaging cash.
But I’m not that motivated by high-flying growth any more. As I learned from McDougall, great running stems from joy. Yes, you have to train hard and smart, it can be extremely painful, sometimes you fall. But, regardless, the greatest runners run with joy. It’s a deep thing, it’s about being a better person. It’s about giving rather than getting.
It might sound a bit wacky, but I believe that we can build a great company using those same principles. What I love about start-ups is the people - the team, the customers, the partners. I’m old now, and I don’t need any external affirmation. I can follow my slightly nutty ideas and not care what anyone but my team thinks of them. I just want to work with good people to build great things that customers find useful. As long as I’m doing that, I can do it forever. And everyone will be happy.
p.s. Back to running, here’s a great video from Nature that tells the basic story in just 6 minutes.
I've started and/or run too many venture capital-backed software companies, plus one ill-fated food startup.