Not what to work on. Who to work with.
I hear a lot of people ask themselves and their friends what they should be working on.
What do I care about enough to not give up?
What could potentially be really big?
What does the world need right now?
What am I uniquely good at?
Those are good and difficult questions.
But I don’t think those come first.
I’ve always approached it differently and asked:
Who do I want to work with?
I co-founded GovPredict because I wanted to work with Emil. Not because I wanted to build something in govtech.
I co-founded Horizons because I wanted to work with Abhi and Darwish. Not because I wanted to build something in edtech.
The ideas came after. Now I care a lot about them but I cared more about working with these people.
Because these are the most brilliant, obsessive, ambitious, let’s-get-it-done, loyal people I know.
So I knew that I wanted to embark on something with them.
My romanticized view of entrepreneurship is first of all that it is obviously not as glamorous as the media makes it seems to be (it is mostly a lot of repetitive and stressful situations), but second of all that it is an adventure to be lived with close friends, in the trenches.
Like modern explorers, fighting and suffering together for a worthy and exciting cause, finding thrills in adversity all along the way.
Horizons is still young but I’m already thinking back on “the early days” and even though we’re bigger now and further along (which is good), I already miss them.
2016 was a whole lot of fun, and very difficult. Abhi and Darwish quit their highly-desirable jobs early in the year and we got started with a landing page after brainstorming and getting excited about building a coding program for college students. We didn’t know if we’d ever get the school off the ground but once they quit there was no turning back. That’s what happens when you burn the bridges.
We sat for hours in a conference room pulling out our hair trying to figure out how to make people want to apply to an unproven, first time, 3-month in-person program with an ugly landing page. We moved to Philadelphia in preparation for the first class, the 3 of us in a 2 bedroom. We for some reason didn’t take the time to buy any chairs or tables, cooked and ate the same Trader Joe’s turkey and Spinach every day leaning against the kitchen counter and spent the days taking 30–40 back to back calls with prospective students from around the world, lying on the ground. We took breaks by going to the gym or sprinting along the river.
We tracked how many students we had signed up for the summer and on some weeks the number didn’t move and was still far below the threshold needed to make the class happen given that we hadn’t raised any money. We didn’t know whether people even wanted this. But we did not allow ourselves to change ideas as we too often had in the past.
Somehow, magically, as if the universe were conspiring in our favor, things fell in place. We found and convinced world class instructors with a decade each of industry experience to come onboard, we found a great classroom on Penn’s campus, we designed an interesting curriculum, convinced successful entrepreneurs and investors to come speak to the class, etc etc. We figured it out and put out fires every day.
When it came time for our students to move in, we became home renovators, professional movers, carried mattresses on our heads from one house to another in the 100 degree humid West Philadelphia summer weather and dealt with plumbing, locksmith and other emergencies at all times of day. We were on call 24/7.
We stayed in the classroom TA’ing until 3 or 4am with the students who needed a lot of extra help and who refused to give up and then biked back to center city to the birds chirping, already announcing the sunrise. We biked back a couple hours later for morning lecture and took naps on the couches in the back of the classroom.
It seems like every other day there was another reason to rent a large U-Haul at an ungodly time of day and lug tables, chairs or other furniture from one location to another with great urgency.
We toured campuses and when our info sessions in Boston lasted way longer than expected we missed the last train and had no other way to get back to Philadelphia than to drive all night, downing one Red Bull after the other, deliriously singing to the radio and turning up the AC until we were freezing to stay awake.
People are mistrustful of cliches because they sound (and often are) insincere but in this case it is actually true that the adventure is the bulk and most enjoyable part of “doing a startup” or “being an entrepreneur.” I don’d like that term — being an entrepreneur. It is not a fixed state. It’s always in motion.
People think of magazine covers and IPOs and other public acclaim and status symbols when they think of startups because the media distorts the reality of it like it does with everything else. Those things may or may not happen way down the line but the good news is that the really hard, and scary part, the one that consumes every waking hour of your youth for years along the way is the actual fun and worthwhile part. It’s the one you’ll remember fondly as containing the highlights of your one, wild and precious life one day when you’re old.
I’d rather be moving tables at 3am than doing anything else.
That of course is only if I’m doing it with the right people.