About a day ago I was asked to sit on a panel on the life and times in an American start-up. Boise State University had a group of German students interested in learning about different areas of business here in the U.S., and I agreed to the interview. I participated in this same event last year, with different students, and it always involves a lot of questions about how you got started, why you do what you do, and the advantages and disadvantages of working for yourself. It also inadvertently forced me to compare how I answered those questions last year, one year into the venture, with how I answer them now, more than two and a half years into this thing we call BookLamp and Novel Projects.
What's it like? What's it like working at a job that simply won't let you go home at night; that either keeps you at work until 7 or 8 p.m. on a regular basis, or failing that, keeps you awake until 1 or 2 in the morning mulling over the things you have to get done the next day? What's it like working these long hours without an immediate reward? Why do we do it?
While showing the students around the office building, I made the comment that the early stages of a start up are, "Not very glamorous." To which one of the students, impeccably dressed, replied, "Not so much." So why do we put ourselves through this unglamorous, time consuming, exhausting process - so often compared to "being in the trenches" of combat, or getting your hands dirty.
Even for one person, there are probably multiple correct responses. If I were to take a guess, I'd say it's largly driven by two things: 1.) potential future rewards, and 2.) we love waking up each morning able to do what we're best at, every single day.
The first of those, potential rewards, is pretty straight forward. I remember reading once that one of the biggest single personality predictors of future financial success is the ability to delay gratification. If you can bring yourself to not buy something because you know you'll be able to buy something better in the future, that's a huge part of eventually becoming financially independent. A startup is a perfect training ground for this - we don't dress in suits largely because it's a waste of resources. We don't drive nice cars because much of our pay is equity based. We delay all the things we want, day to day, on the hopes that this thing we're working on so hard will pay off later. It's my belief that the first thing a person starting a new company needs to ask themselves is if they're prepared to delay large and small gratifications for potentially years at a time. Startups simply bank on the idea that living lean and being smart eventually lead to future rewards.
Which is why failed startups rarely leave owners that made a fortune off of their salaries.
The second reason, though, is more complicated, and has to do with allocation of time. How much of our lives do we spend doing something that we don't personally value simply because it pays bills? How many times do we say things like, "I think I'd be able to do <fill in the blank>, if I only had the time." This all has to do with the feeling that someday, down the road, I'm going to look back at my life and feel like I either lived up to my potential, or I didn't. If I didn't, I don't want it to be because I only allocated "part time" effort to making things happen.
There's a common phrase that I don't really like. It goes, "Live each day as if it were your last"?
It's very common, and one that I generally disagree with - I'd much prefer, "Live each year as if it were your last," but that's another blog post unto itself. My point is that in most people's typical usage normally applies to in-the-moment items - convincing yourself to ask out the girl you've been interested in, or taking that vacation you've been putting off. It so often refers to a single flash of brilliance, a single instant or period where you step outside the bounds of what we consider typical life, and do something different.
It rarely takes into account a return to the normal after the flash is done. It's hard to get to Europe for that vacation without spending many unglamorous hours on travel arrangements, buying tickets, cooking dinner, doing dishes, and taking out the trash. The truth is that brilliant flashes are made better in the long run by our daily compromises. We strike a balance between the moments of brilliance and the moments of routine that allow those moments of brilliance to exist. You shouldn't stop taking out the trash just because it represents a second of your life not spent on the glamorous, and it's not bad to spend hours at a job if it enables you to do what you love. The problem comes when so many of our hours are consumed by activities that we're lukewarm about that they are the standard for our lives, and not the exception. The truth is, most of us will spend the majority of our productive years in one of two states: sleeping, or working on something we don't care about for someone else who cares about it more.
The midlife crisis is the point where we realize that somewhere over the years, we stopped doing what we love on a daily basis while working on the side, and started working on a daily basis while doing what we love on the side, instead.
It's my personal belief that we should all have a midlife crisis about once a year, starting at as early an age as possible.
Between sleeping and working, there's not much we can do about sleeping (though I've tried). But there is something we can do about working. Why do I work long hours and throw myself at something as uncertain as a startup? Because it allows me to spend every hour that I'm not sleeping doing exactly the thing that I think is the most important at that exact moment.
In five years, success or failure, I'll be able to look back and know that I didn't waste my time
- I never spent an hour doing something I didn't think was worth doing, or didn't think was important. I imagine it may be as close to controlling my own destiny as I'll ever get.
It also means that you work long hours virtually every single day - because until the restorative and relaxing value of sitting in front of the TV before going to bed outweighs the value of working an extra hour on your company, you stay and you work. And then, some days you go home early, because that extra breather is what you need to be happy.
The point is, it's your decision.
Things are progressing, much more quickly than they appear from the outside. Our crew is hard at work prepping software for another trip to New York here in late September - it's crunch time on top of our perpetual crunch time.
Dan has now permanently moved from Florida to Idaho home office, making him our first interstate recruit.
For the first time since Dan completed his internship with us many months ago, we were able to take the "Dan" label off the monitor that he used to Skype into the office. Now, Dan has been promoted from glass fish tank to human being. It'll be nice to have him around in person (as a fish tank, he missed out on things like spontaneous donut runs).
It also nicely rounds out our research team, which now has ties to BSU, FSU, and Stanford University. Looking back at it, we now have more than a dozen people working actively on the team. Quite a change from 3 of us a year ago, or just one of us 3 years ago (me).
On a final note, the student's comment about a startup being "not so much" glorious made me think. How is it that we compare startups to being in the trenches, where glory and honor - if you can think of war this way - is such a common part of the vocabulary, and yet look at being in a startup as "not glorious". I propose this simple thought. Glory comes from the overcoming of odds, the excelling in the face of defeat. When a small group of soldiers hold off a greater force for days on end, history views these things as inspiring, or legendary and heroic. Glorious. The triumph of will over adversity.
It is in the inglorious labor of grueling and unlikely dedication that you find glory. In a way, this is an obvious statement. You can see how obvious it is by asking a simple question: Do you think it's more likely to find glory in founding a small, potentially risky startup, or is it more likely to find in the ranks of middle management at a large, established company, such as IBM or Hewlett Packard? Which of the two has the greater opportunity for glory? Is glory more easy to find in peace, or during war?
Not that I care much about glory - and certainly not the kind defined by anything as pointless as war - but my point is this: Glory is not comfortable, or easy, or traditional. Glory is ugly. In fact, glory - at the time that it is happening - are those things that we're most likely to call "inglorious".
Glory is a product of outcome in retrospect, not process in the moment.