The cliche of Start-up Culture
A saying you often hear in start-up culture is that a budding entrepreneur must “stay hungry to succeed”. The connotation being that the hunger for their goal drives them, but at this point it’s essentially a meaningless cliche don’t you think?
Have you ever been hungry though in the real physical sense? Like you need to eat something because your body needs it? Of course you have, everyone has, it’s part of being human and it’s normal… for short periods of time. An important psychological component to hunger is knowing you will eventually eat something. The guaranty that you will feast once again means the difference between starvation and destitution, or simple inconvenience.
The same applies for start-ups, except you never really know whether your product will succeed enough to feed you and satiate your hunger. What you do instead is go through the motions of what it takes to succeed, like a hunter tracking prey and having his weapon ready to kill. But the hunter never really knows whether he’ll come home with dinner, he just does everything he can to ensure that he’s prepared to do so.
That brings us to the rest of the post. What I want to do is draw similarities between my quest for weight loss and my quest for start-up success with Crowdscriber. My hope is that it resonates with other people who are on the same path in their lives as entrepreneurs. I hope you come to the realization, or at least solidify your resolve in the fact that it is indeed the hard work and perseverance that at the end of the day nets you the results you desire in just about every aspect of your life.
Back in 2008 I was on top of the world. I had been a long-time IRCitizen, but hadn’t really used it much to talk to people about programming. Well, actually that’s not true. In the late 90s I was an op of the channel #computer_programmer over on EFNet, in fact computer-programmer.org was the first domain I had ever registered (I still have it to this day, although I’ve never done a thing with it). On this channel we actually didn’t discuss much programming, it was like a hangout for a bunch of people who were scattered throughout the world and were probably never going to meet IRL but nonetheless shared a common interest/profession in programming. At some point in the early 2000s I made the jump over to freenode, and during my daily programming tasks I started using a pastebin called “Paper Napkin”. I had found that the service was being bombarded with spam postings, and I also noticed that the developers hung out on freenode.
I hopped over to their channel and asked them if I could implement a simple honey pot spam filter for them… and so I did. I kept hanging around in the channel and got to know a fellow by the nick of kinabalu. One day, he offered me a job. I was scared as hell, I had a toddler and a baby at home, I was pursuing my Masters degree and to boot, I was the sole breadwinner in my home.
For me it was hard to justify leaving my current contract to go pursue another one with someone I barely knew and worst, had never met or spoken to in real life. However, the job seemed just too good to be true and a perfect fit for me. I’d be working for a team that was building interactive children’s educational toys, I’d be flying out to San Francisco once a month (all expenses paid) and the rest of the time I could work from home.
Being geographically challenged (I’m stuck in Winnipeg), I knew I had to grasp the bull by the horns, and so I took a leap of faith and accepted the contract. I met a tonne of great people (two of which I still podcast with), worked on some fascinating technology (like a smart pen to help kids learn to read) and I was making more money than I had ever seen in my life!
As they say: No risk, no reward and in this case, it actually worked for me.
There was one aspect of my life however that wasn’t going so well… my weight. When you travel a lot, unless you are strict and motivated to watch what you eat and exercise, you’ll get fat. I mean I didn’t start the contract slim and trim, I probably weighed in at 220lbs @ 6′, however after my contract was all said and done I had gained another 20lbs, tipping the scales at 240lbs. I knew something needed to be done. As an avid hockey player I could tell my endurance was way off of where it should be, not to mention I had to take a deep breath before bending over to tie my skates lest my belly get in the way.
I knew I needed to lose weight, but I didn’t really know how. One thing I did know though… dieting alone doesn’t work for me. I need physical activity in order to a) burn calories b) to put myself in a mind-set where I question what I’m eating.
When I’m doing physical activity, I won’t eat junk food. I have this little voice in my head saying “why would you eat something that would take you 1hr of cardio to burn off?”. Some people have a different voice, theirs says “you can eat that junk food because you did 1hr of cardio today!”
My goal was to lose weight, the path to success was to increase my cardio and decrease the calories I was in taking, the side effect was being hungry… all the time! It was maddening, I couldn’t focus. My body was craving food, and worst of all I was purposely burning calories away through exercise. My brain and my body didn’t know what hit them.
As far as exercise was concerned I decided to take up jogging. I had never jogged before in my life, and I knew I wouldn’t like it either. I had to play a trick on myself in order to even start to jog. I lived 5km away from where I was contracting at the time. I told myself “you are going to jog to work”, and that’s what I did. Well, sort of. I jogged about a half block before my lungs felt like they were on fire and I was sweating bullets. What a disaster, what a failure! What the hell am I doing. It’s at this point where I would have just given up, but… I have to get to work! Do I walk back home, feeling completely crappy about myself, shower, change and get in my car? That actually sounds like more work than to keep trying.
Now isn’t this what we as entrepreneurs do? We are hurting, we’re exhausted and we’re hungry… but we keep going. Summed up quite nicely as “perseverance”.
So while almost dying after the first half block, I resigned myself to walk for a while longer in the direction of my work. Then after I recovered my breath, I’d start the jog again. I repeated this for 5km, doing much more walking than jogging. The next day I did the same, in fact it became easier because I knew it was ok to stop and walk.
This reminds me so much about how Crowdscriber is being developed. I make money through contracts, we can continue working on the product. Slow and steady wins the race.
In not much time at all I started to want to improve. When I was at the breaking point during a jog, where I thought I couldn’t go any further I’d muster the strength for just a few more yards. I had to radically change my mental dialog from “why are you doing this? Just take a break, this isn’t life or death” to “You’re exhausted, yes, but this is exactly the same thing you did yesterday. Do you want to just plateau? How about this, let’s go an extra half block but let’s do it at a sprinting pace, you’ll just get it over with faster”. It was amazing to experience both the mental and physical transformation. I was feeling great about myself, I was shedding weight like nobody’s business and I had this amazing pride in the fact that I did it by myself. I would no longer order a burger for lunch, not because I’m depriving myself, but rather I don’t want that burger. Food is fuel to me now, not my source of pleasure.
Having that mental switch from “why are you doing this? Go get a 9-5 job” to “fight through the pain, realize the gains” is a key component in the mind-set of an entrepreneur. Sure, it’s unhealthy when you are pushing too hard for unattainable goals, but that’s when you can reassess and pivot your goal or how you approach obtaining it (more on this in a bit)
You need to see progress
I was hungry so often, but my mindset changed such that I began to enjoy being hungry. I’d play little games like putting off having my lunch just to see how long I could last. I saw the hunger in a different way now, I felt it was my body stating “hey, you burned all those calories this morning, I’d like some back”. I’d respond back “actually, I’m trying to lose weight, so thanks for the reminder but I’ll have to get back to you”. Hunger became a key indicator that I was proceeding toward my goal to lose weight. The fact I could manage its influence was this intoxicating feeling of having something I had lacked for sometime: will power.
The only way the hunger was tolerable for me had to do with the fact that it was a means to an end and I was seeing real progress in my weight loss. Being hungry combined with seeing the progress I’ve made reminded me that my goal of losing weight was actively being pursued and implemented. So between my bathroom scale, my mirror and this fantastic iPhone app called Runkeeper I was able to track my progress in a number of ways.
In a start-up you can’t simply state a goal of “build a product to do X”, you absolutely have to set yourself up such that you can measure progress and celebrate the milestones along the way. It’s the only way that starving yourself of your time, energy and money is rewarding in anyway.
Our goal for Crowdscriber is to create the best transcription system imaginable. A daunting task for sure! So what we do is break all of our tasks up into bite-sized chunks and categorize them into User Story Epics on a Kanban board. An Epic might be something like “As a User, I want to login to the system” and the tasks to complete that Epic might be “Create login form” – “Create database table to store credentials” – “Implement password hashing”. When the tasks assigned to an Epic are complete, we have ourselves a deployable feature that can be seen and touched. We haven’t reached our goal, but it signifies progress and it makes you feel damn good about yourself and your vision.
You need milestones for your start-up, progress is the best motivator
Pivot when goals change, or impediments cause friction
So things were going great in my quest for weight-loss, I was down to 186lbs, in my mid 30s at the time and at the peak shape of my life. People are complimenting me left-right and center, I’m flying up and down the ice in Hockey, but then, imagine what happens. A set-back. I injure myself after my first 10km (6mile) run. I can barely walk let alone jog. It was definitely a low-point for me. I think I panicked. I said to myself “you worked so hard to get here, now you’re going to slide right back to where you were”. But I didn’t, instead I found other ways to burn my calories, I started lifting weights and utilizing elliptical machines to minimize stress on my joints. I started to gain weight, yes, but it was different way, it was now all muscle weight. Both my goal and the way I was going about achieving it changed.
In startup terms what I’ve just described is known as a “pivot”. It’s when your initial vision doesn’t quite pan out for whatever reason and in order to achieve your goal, you alter what your goal is or alter your approach. My goal changed from “loose weight” to “feel good, look good, be healthy” and my strategy for getting there altered from jogging 5-10km per day, to mixing weight lifting with low-impact cardio.
A lot of times in start-ups the pivot happens for other reasons, for instance when they have been funded by outside investors. The start-up might release their product and quickly determine they can’t capture the market share they need in order to give their investors a return. Still having money in the bank, they brainstorm other ideas and then pivot their direction toward a new (sometimes completely different) goal. When a start-up takes money, I’d almost argue that whatever their original goal had been, it has to share a seat with their investors desire for a return.
My start-up is all self-funded and being so takes a lot of resolve, but at the end of the day the only person I stand to disappoint is myself. This is exactly the same approach I took with my weight-loss… and it was nice to discover how much I hate disappointing myself. How good it feels to set a goal and achieve it.
Until next time, set your goals, plan how you are to achieve them, persevere, pivot if needed. Stay hungry. All cliche unless what I’ve wrote above resonates with anyone other than myself 🙂