Caren Maio had an iced coffee and, despite what it does to my stomach, I had a mocha: French Roast on 85th and Broadway on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Days after she’d walked out on the stage at Webster Hall, opening Techstars New York’s Demo Day. Days after, despite a slight malfunction with her wireless mic set up, Caren and Nestio had killed it.
“I looked out at the audience and I saw you and Eric Friedman and I knew it was going to be alright.” Eric, one of Nestio’s mentors who included The Gotham Gal, Joanne Wilson, and the brilliant, omnipresent, Beth Ferreira, sat three or four rows behind me. We didn’t plan to make certain that at least one of us were always in sight in the hundreds that crowded the floor; it just worked out that way.
“So what was it like,” I asked. “Really?” And of course I asked in that voice that, regardless of my words, tends to induce tears. (Those who have experienced it know the awesome tears-inducing power of the Yoda of Silicon Alley. To those who haven’t experienced it yet I quote my favorite Bible passage: Be not afraid. I live by Uncle Ben’s dying words: With great power comes great responsibility.)
So what was it like? “I’ll tell you. You guys couldn’t see from the audience because of the way you were sitting but when each of us would finish our presentations and make our way back upstairs to the gallery above the audience, we’d be greeted with high-fives and hugs.” The biggest, most powerful part of the Techstars experience, for Caren was the support, the camaraderie of the other companies, the “Davids,” and the mentors who made it a point to be able to make eye contact with their mentees as they stepped into the glare of the New York fundraising scene.
I contrast that with this email exchange I had with an earnest, smart-as-shit, entrepreneur trying to make it in Ljubljana, Slovenia:
We’ve met for a couple of minutes on Friday 8th, after your presentation at the US-Slovenia business bridge in Hotel Slon in Ljubljana. You’ve met many people that day, so I don’t expect you’ll remember talking to me but I just wanted to share my opinion and feedback on your presentation, as there was not much time available at the meeting and you had to juggle with many interested in talking to you.
It was refreshing to hear from someone that not only understands, but also lives in the today’s entrepreneurial mindset. We’re used to college professors that teach entrepreneurship, but never been one, or finance guys that »direct« entrepreneurs, but don’t understand one. And we unfortunately live in a country (or region) that publicly wants entrepreneurs, but ignores what entrepreneurship is. I’m aware that it is not much different in other parts of the world, and that these problems will fade and be solved with time. And I share with you the “gut” feeling that things are changing. But the pace is way too slow for these times.
I’ve asked you only one question in our short chat; “What was driving you to invest in Twitter and Zemanta?”. You answered, without hesitating: “My gut”. Your presentation touched a topic that I believe is crucial for every entrepreneurship; “selling the vision”. It is hard to sell the vision in a region that does not value it, but only values the fast ride to profits. In the end, projects are created that have only one goal: profit. The “change the world” part vanished, or rather, never existed. Unfortunately all institutions, from the government down to universities don’t value visionaries, because they need maintenance and maintenance requires money. The money is here, but is rather spent on projects that create jobs not because they solve a problem, but just because they “modernize” the same old problem. I’m aware capitalism drives everything to profits, but I refuse to believe profit is a sole measure of success.
The glimmer in the eye of the entrepreneur, the one that triggers the investors “gut” feeling to go or no-go is a worthless distraction here. Selling the vision is regarded as impossible, because it does not fit into a business plan. Those who don’t turn to markets other than local are doomed without strong ties to those that control. That lethal combination led to a market where IT companies either work for foreign customers (mainly or only) or just ignore the local market and move to a better environment. The problem is widespread, from private companies, universities, banks, investment companies to the government itself.
The environment is key, as you said. Slovenia has a perfect position to offer the best environment for IT companies. The infrastructure is well developed (widespread FTTH, UMTS), people are hard enough to shift to new technologies to prove that if a technology passes here, it will pass in western countries. And the most important one, Slovenia is small enough to make it a “cheap playground” for new ideas and products.
I’m 27 and after more than 8 years of trying here, last year I decided to move to a new environment and my “gut” told me London is the target. I’m not seeking for easier ground, I’m only seeking for a better opportunity. I’m full of energy, full of ideas that may be worthless or golden, and I’m also full of raw passion to create and evolve. I would be more than happy to create here, prove the concept and then cash in on the big markets, but I can’t. Not because I’m afraid of failure, but because the environment is so scared of failures it simply seeks sure-bets. Pioneers are regarded as “born somewhere else”.
I apologize for taking valuable time from you with this lengthy feedback, but I wanted to share my point of view as I think it is the least I could do to return the favor after you shared your vast experience with us.
Hope you’re doing fine and enjoyed your stay in Ljubljana.
Maybe my powers work on me as well but I was moved to tears by that note. Not only for the kindness implicit in his comments about my talk but more to the point, in the all-too-common difficulty inherent in his choosing the startup life. I found this passage especially poignant:
“I’m 27 and after more than 8 years of trying here, last year I decided to move to a new environment and my “gut” told me London is the target. I’m not seeking for easier ground, I’m only seeking for a better opportunity. I’m full of energy, full of ideas that may be worthless or golden, and I’m also full of raw passion to create and evolve. I would be more than happy to create here, prove the concept and then cash in on the big markets, but I can’t. Not because I’m afraid of failure, but because the environment is so scared of failures it simply seeks sure-bets. Pioneers are regarded as “born somewhere else”. ”
Are they? I suppose they are; I suppose pioneers, entrepreneurs, people who believe they can change the world, are, as Hugh Macleod suggests, considered delusional and “born somewhere else.”
Every week I hear it, hold it, and do my best to comfort, to empathize, and then offer suggestions for living the startup life. Some weeks I hear about the Twitter-squatter who has stolen a dozen iterations on my client’s company’s name. Or I hear about the co-founder and best friend from middle school who, it’s painfully clear, needs to be fired. Or the guy whose wife is selling the kids’ clothes on eBay so they can buy food.
Of course it’s not the same stories; but it might as well be since the pain is the same.
Buried amidst the torrent of wonderful suggestions about funding, strategies, and even the occasional brilliant meme like that started by Ben Horowitz on the need for a CEO to manage their own psyche is the simple recognition that this life, this startup life, is damn hard.
Over a year ago I wrote a post called Disappearing into the Fire. It remains one of my most popular pieces. Last December, Ann Mehl, a brilliant and wonderful fellow coach and I did a first iteration of a workshop building on that theme. We’re at it again. This time we’ll be doing a version of a the workshop in partnership with our good friends at General Assembly that seeks to address to core elements of surviving life in a startup. It’s not for everyone but it is for anyone who’s struggling with living through the vicissitudes of the roller-coaster, the psychopathology of everyday life where the payroll is uncertain, paying rent is a dream, and keeping would-be copycats from squatting your social media avatars.
I am often frustrated by time. I wish I could see all those who’d like to see me. I wish I could scale my business to a point where I can see all those who need help. The truth is, I love entrepreneurs and I want to see them succeed (however that’s defined). But I can’t. And doing these workshops helps foster a sense of collective support. Brad Hargreaves, my colleague at General Assembly, said it reminds him of the “Founders’ Therapy” collective effort that seems to have died. For me, I just want to catalyze those moments of high-fives and hugs that made Caren’s experience so powerful and, in the end, bearable.
- LIVE FROM TECHSTARS NYC: The Standout Startups Of The Morning (businessinsider.com)
- Nestio plans to make apartment hunting smart, social and easy (thenextweb.com)
- Spring Break – Ljubljana, Slovenia (travelpod.com)
- The ultimate pitch: 11 startups, 8 minutes, 500 investors (money.cnn.com)