Why Entrepreneurs Love Endurance Sports

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If you don’t have answers to your problems after a four-hour run, you ain’t getting them.
– Christopher McDougall (Born To Run)

As I prepared for my first marathon last year, people kept asking me why I was running the race. What compelled me to spend all my free time running (and at the time fundraising for CCFA). While there were personal reasons for this specific race, what was apparent is that a ton of my fellow entrepreneurs had done or were preparing to do some endurance activity themselves. From mountaineering to marathons to triathlons – it was clear that the entrepreneurially inclined also have a higher than normal participation rate in endurance sports.

What is it about pushing yourself to physical limits that appeals to us? Some say it’s the same drive and motivation to succeed that lead them to entrepreneurship in the first place. Honestly that’s just not it. Certainly the skills and character needed for professional success helps someone complete their chosen activity – but it’s not the “why”. After 6 months of reflection and a few more races, it’s become apparent that the thing I seek is myself. The voice in my head that becomes even more introspective, even more truthful. It’s a place to reconcile the decisions of my past and their results and think through the decisions I currently face in a physical and emotional place that has been stripped bare of its armor.

The startup environment is so emotionally and physically demanding that we develop protection, both from the outside world and from ourselves. There is something about bumping up against your physical limits that breaks down even the strongest armor.

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Not Everyone Needs To Take The Same Risks

When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realize his dream.
–Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist)

Last week I read a couple posts about hiring MBAs into startups by Ed Zimmerman and Phin Barnes. They took a thoughtful look at hiring and funding MBAs, with both largely ending up on the “it ultimately depends – but I’m usually extra cautious about it” answer. My view is a little more nuanced view, in that I think that most MBAs should ignore the startup hype and go after the big roles at corporates that they dream about. Much like a Rabbi telling the wannabe convert to get stuffed 3 times before welcoming  them into the fold, founders should push the limits of potential MBA candidates.

If they don’t do the startup thing, it’s totally ok! Other people do not need to define success, or their life, the way that a startup founder does. It makes me extremely upset when I see startups poopooing other people’s career goals as not valiant. It is perfectly acceptable, and more logical, to make a conscious effort to de-risk career choices. Hell, in the depths of the dark days there isn’t a single startup founder who makes it past the “just messing around stage” that doesn’t rethink their own huge risk taking. Over the past year I’ve had more than my share of dark days, many of which had me thinking how to seriously de-risk.

When an MBA decides to take on the extra risk, they can be a huge asset. Many MBAs have an element of unrestrained ambition that makes them a force when deployed in the right way. They will give up all other aspects of their life for professional success, throw personal relationships out the door and maybe even sacrifice their own health. They also usually have the intelligence and attitude to be a key contributor to the team. The problem, as both Phin and Ed point out, is that they are usually wired to take safe bets and seek out status, security and prestige. As a founder, you question their motives for wanting to be involved, worse you fear that they’ll jump ship when something shinier comes along.  If you can find one that truly wants to be involved, they usually have something to prove and that kind of fire translates into an employee that will be very hard to stop.

So when an MBA comes looking for startup opportunities as their modern “safety school” equivalent, they get shown the door.  If you put up every roadblock and they knock them down one by one and are relentless because either your idea or your team is something they need to be a part of, then open up and use their fire to your benefit.

Not Everyone Needs To Take The Same Risks

I’m an Entrepreneur (just don’t call me a startup)

This is a guest post by Patrick Stinus, a co-founder of Seventh Element , a management consulting firm that provides “Fortune 100 tools to small businesses” to help them grow and increase profitability.

I was recently on the phone catching up with Joel and it dawned on me that while we’re both entrepreneurs, we operate in completely different worlds. If you were to ask, 99.9% of people they would see very little differences in our stories. We both worked in the GE “fast track” program which promised us lives of success and the “the American Dream”. We both left it behind to start our own businesses, take a shot at changing the world and do work that makes us truly happy. The difference is that I’m not trying to launch a startup, I’m starting an agency.

Start”ups”, especially ones that focus on technology, are what most people envision when they think about when you quit your job to “follow your dreams.” They’re typified by years of living on Ramen noodles, working 70 hour weeks, bootstrapping and sometimes pimping yourself to private money. They are designed to cheaply and quickly create a completely new (or incredibly better) product or service. It takes time without revenue to develop new products.

Agencies are businesses whose core value proposition is the skill set of its employees. I co-founded Seventh Element to bring the business management tools we perfected at GE to small businesses. We skipped the long, costly, and iterative product development phase and went straight to clocking billable hours to our clients. We can leverage our corporate pedigree to potential clients and make money within the first month of existence.

If you graph the profits of successful startups, they follow an exponential curve, where they bumble along for a long time making very little money and then get traction and “pop.” Since these businesses have such high-profit margins, which aren’t tied to hours available to bill, they have the potential to create hugely scaleable businesses which can be sold for hundreds of millions of dollars. The agency model theoretically starts with respectable profits on day one and grows in a modest, linear, path as it bill more hours and hires more talent that can be billed. An agency is far less risky, but is much less scaleable.

I am not trying to oversimplify the challenges our agency has faced, or imply that leaving a steady job for an agency is more (or less) respectable than a startup. The fact is that agencies have a good chance of making reasonable money, and startups have a low chance of making stupid money. If you do the rough math, the upside is similar. Owning a business is a personal decision, and the money is just one piece of the puzzle. Their isn’t a right or wrong way to do things, but keep this comparison in mind if you are deciding on starting your own business.

I’m an Entrepreneur (just don’t call me a startup)

What kind of company culture are we building?

Over the past few weeks Chad and I have been recruiting engineers to join our Card Gnome team. It has forced us to be introspective and verbalize our company culture to prospects. It has been illuminating to look at how our personal belief systems have manifested themselves into an operating entity. It comes down to 4 core tenants:

Passion/Motivation: Life is short so we believe it should be spent doing things we are passionate about. We truly believe that intrinsic motivation produces the best long term value and we foster that in ourselves and others. Money by itself is not a motivator, only an indicator that your business has added value. We are trying to build an amazing organization of passionate individuals, therefore acceptance of mediocrity is unacceptable.

Independent Debate: Chad and I are both fiercely independent thinkers with nearly opposite personalities and core skillsets. Our debates are epic but always respectful. We put all the details on the table and force each other to justify our thinking. It has given us a deep appreciation for how the other person thinks, which only serves to make the debates more honest. At the end of each debate though we come to a conclusion and agree on a path forward. I cannot, at this moment, think of a situation in which we were not in complete agreement on the correct decision. There is very little grey area, we both agree that a decision is the correct course or we keep talking. Compromise has its place, but it generally doesn’t build a compelling product.

Experimentation: We  are wiling to implement our ideas purely to learn what will happen. In fact, adding printed cards was originally one of these ideas. A few people had asked whether we could print our eCards for them and so we decided to give it a try. A week later, after receiving amazing feedback from consumers and artists, we decided to change our core business. Other trials have been failures, but the freedom to try something new is what makes us entrepreneurs, and heck its fun.

Respect for others: Our company is not just about profits, its also about meaningfully improving the lives of our customers, employees, partners and ourselves. When we make decisions we think deeply about how the decision will effect our stakeholders.  Making them happy and treating them fairly is the only way to build a great company.

We haven’t written a formal values statement yet, and there are certainly things I’ve left out, but this post is a good start. Use the comments below to let us know what you think about it.

What kind of company culture are we building?

Why @ZackShapiro wants to be an entrepreneur

This is a guest post by Zack Shapiro, a student at the University of Colorado. He also runs an iPhone
development company called 59thirty and is currently working on a stealth
startup.

Want the short version? I want to be an entrepreneur because I can’t sit still. I work on projects and help others out all while day dreaming about my own goals, my ideas that I can’t seem to shake from the front of my mind.

I’ve had business ideas since I was 12 or 13. That’s as far back as I can remember throwing away small amounts of money on short-lived ideas. I created and developed blogs and then dumped them for a new one. I outsourced web design and small coding projects only to realize I didn’t know what to do next.

I didn’t know this was entrepreneurship. I just thought I was antsy.

In high school I ran my most successful website, a comedy blog. This lead to a podcast that culminated with former Tech TV personality Martin Sargent appearing on our second-to-last episode and his sidekick, Joey the Intern appearing on our final one. That was my first “exit.” I couldn’t top myself there, so I went out on a high note.

Fast forward to my freshman year of college: the iPhone is taking over the planet. I take a computer science class and develop what would become my first app. With the encouragement of my newly found mentor Dave Taylor I finish it and release it as an experiment. 8 months later 1200 copies have been sold.

I’m in.

A friend once told me that he knew most of what he learned in college prior to going, he just didn’t know the associated terms. I guess I’ve always known this was what I wanted to do. I just didn’t have a name for it.

So now I’m two years through undergrad, sure of what I want to do, and tapping my foot impatiently to do it full-time. Classes like astronomy are a waste of my time, so I’m auditing an MBA class on venture capital. I’m hungry for knowledge and dying to apply it.

Once I walk across that stage I’ll put in an order for business cards that screams with a full ethos, “I’m an entrepreneur.”

Why @ZackShapiro wants to be an entrepreneur

Does the CO tech explosion resemble the GoldRush?

This weekend I saw a sign from the Goldrush era in Colorado. The language extolling the virtues of buying land for “profitable exploration” instantly resembled the sales copy I’ve come to recognize on websites.  I wondered if we [tech startups] were living the modern day version. I set out to research and determine what, if any, were the similarities and differences between 1859 and 2009.

Gold Rush Mining
Prospecting for Gold

Let’s start with some facts. The Colorado Gold Rush was set-off in 1859 by the discovery of gold in what is today Denver’s Confluence Park. The news, coming out roughly 10 years after the California Gold Rush, set off a stampede of prospective miners from across the plains. The towns of Boulder, Golden and Denver sprung up to serve the booming mining operations across the front range. In total, 21 million ounces of gold were mined from Colorado between 1859 and 1861, more than the combined total of both the California and Alaska rushes earlier in the century. In addition to making individual prospectors rich, it provided lucrative jobs for those who didn’t want to risk it on their own and lead to the development of significant infrastructure investments. This included rail links, highways, farming operations and a booming tourism business.

In the common conscience, including mine, a Goldrush is an irrational search for a quick fortune. Not a laudable endeavor. The result, however, is that a single 2 year period in Colorado transformed a largely uninhabited part of the country into a well connected economic hub and set it up for a century of rapid population growth.  Us Boulderites love our town, and it wouldn’t exist as it is if it weren’t for the Gold Rush.

The reasons people have moved to Colorado to start technology companies are very different. The most frequent reason people give for moving here is lifestyle. Starting a business is hard work, but is also fun and engages people’s passions.  The startup community consists of passionate people living their life to the fullest.  The type of startups moving to Boulder during what I want to call the Startup Explosion are not the Gold Rush people blindly seeking wealth.  They are smart, confident, adventurous and looking for a community where they belong and that can help them accumulate wealth and a reputation.  These are people who can have, and largely already have had, top-notch jobs elsewhere.

Clearly the human factors aren’t the same as the Gold Rush.  The outcomes, however, are exactly the same.  The influx of new companies has led to a large service and infrastructure expansion.  200 years ago it was the creation of railroads, highways and cities. Today its VC firms, incubators, law resources and potentially Google Fiber *cross my fingers*.

So does the tech explosion resemble the GoldRush?  Kinda.  It has the same influx of resources and expansion of infrastructure, but it lacks the irrational underpinnings of the Gold Diggers.  While people left their homes for fortune during the Gold Rush, more than 150 years later people are moving for the startup infrastructure, mentors and lifestyle.

Does the CO tech explosion resemble the GoldRush?

The Perfect Storm: Why start a weather business?

Guest blog post by Joel Gratz, founder of the ColoradoPowderForecast and DontGetZapped

There is absolutely no substitute for being passionate about something and acting on that passion. This isn’t a cliché. It’s just the only way to really be happy.

When it’s going to snow, I have the energy of someone who just took a few too many shots of “5 Hour Energy”. This was true as a 6 year old wanting to play in the snow, as a 12 year old wanting a day off of school, and as a 25 year old looking for a midweek powder day at Vail.

Weather, particularly snow, is my passion. I went to school for meteorology. I’ll talk your ear off about the clouds. This is what gets me jazzed up.

How do you turn a life-long passion into a sustainable business?  With lots of energy, luck, and a bit of technology.

In 2006, I finished my joint Masters in Meteorology and MBA.  I started working for ICAT Managers, a hurricane and earthquake insurance company in Boulder. The location, pay and hours were great.  The people were kind too, in short, it was a good job. There was just one problem: I spent 95% of my time on data and analysis and only 5% of meteorology.  I thought that my passion could wait, as my life otherwise was perfectly fine and comfortable. Snow, skiing, and weather could still be my hobby even if it wasn’t my job.

But in late 2007, the perfect storm began to take shape. A few of my skiing friends asked me for forecasts so they could plan their snowy adventures for the week. At first I responded to these requests individually, but realized this was time consuming and inefficient. So I started an email list and began a weekly email to ~50 of my friends to let them know where and when to find the best snow. I wrote my emails with a touch of quirky humor and included a few graphics. The word spread.

During the 2008-2009 ski season, the email list grew to 500 people, which pathetically enough, was still just a group of contacts in Gmail.

At the beginning of the 2009-2010 ski season, I broke into the 21st century and set up a blog to replace the email list and ColoradoPowderForecast was born. By late December, tens of thousands of people were visiting the site, and I finally opened my eyes to the perfect storm swirling around me:

  • Energy: I love working hard to forecast snow and help people enjoy it.
  • Luck: A few well-connected people found my site and passed it on to many more.
  • Technology: $0 spent on marketing and $3/month in web hosting was all it took to get 30,000 people to follow my forecasts.

With some good press in the books by new years, I knew that I had stumbled upon a way to make a living by following my passion. On January 21st, 2010, I left my full-time job to spend time meeting people in the ski industry and to begin transitioning my hobby into a real business.

Things are still in transition, but there’s not a day that goes by that I question my decision to follow the one thing that really gets me fired up: Snow. Luckily for me, there are about 12 million people in the U.S. that are also passionate about snow as skiers and snowboarders.  No, this isn’t a massive market. But by following my passion and helping these 12 million people to follow theirs, I should be able to make this business work out. And all it took to get started was $3/month, a bunch of snow flakes, some luck, and a bit of technology.

Now let’s go La Nina – bring on the powder!

The Perfect Storm: Why start a weather business?