The Long Game: Why Entrepreneurs Need to Commit to a 10 Year Plan

Taking a startup from an idea on a napkin to a successful business takes perseverance and often a decade of full commitment. No surprise. But, that absolute unwillingness to quit is much more than just a required ingredient in a complex success equation.

Simply making that deep, ten-year commitment to your life’s mission will create almost immediate effects. You’ll transform into a magnet, drawing in money, talent, and business partnerships. You’ll vault yourself ahead of an early field. Of course, you must also follow through, and that does take grit.

Elon Musk said building a company is like “staring into the abyss and eating glass.” I wholeheartedly agree, but consider this — you don’t need any special god-given skill to eat glass, you just have to be willing to do it.

COMMITMENT IS ATTRACTIVE

As a truly committed founder, you become a magnet for talent vs. those “others” who in contrast seem to be dabbling. That passion and determination can energize a company, shape the culture (or DNA) of the company, and help recruit key co-founders, employees, or investors. More than anything else, it is simply FUN to be on a shared mission with a committed founder.

When I was very much in the ideation stage of Applied Semantics, I spent time on the phone brainstorming ideas, dreams and aspirations with close friends and a few relatives. One of those long phone calls was with a cousin, Ari Barkan, an engineer who grew up and lived on the East Coast (one of the first employees at Network Solutions which basically ran the internet). Only a few weeks later he calls me and says, “Hey Cuz, that’s it, I’m moving West.” “Why?”, I asked. “I’m dropping everything here to help you on your journey,” he responded. No discussions of specific roles or responsibilities. He was in, whatever it was going to take.

I always thought this was luck that terrific people joined me on the journey, but looking back, maybe it wasn’t total luck. I was as passionate and committed as a person can be to a mission; he sensed that and wanted to join the journey.

COMMITMENT IS A GREAT BET FOR INVESTORS

A very common reason for company “failure” is that the founder just decides to do something else. So, there is a reason that I put “failure” in quotes! As an investor (I’m a partner at TenOneTen Ventures), one key thing I look for is evidence that this company reflects the founder’s underlying personal mission and passion rather than just a way to collect a paycheck for a period of time. I need to know that the founder is committed to fulfilling the mission regardless of obstacles that will inevitably present themselves.

And, even if their commitment lasts all the way through a financial exit, that’s still not enough!

Commitment must transcend the financial exit. The most strategic (read lucrative) acquisitions involve a corporate “bet” on a committed team that can continue to build upon a mission, leveraging new resources and networks.

When Google was looking to penetrate the huge future market for the “Digital Home”, they saw in Nest an incredibly passionate and capable team that dreamed big. Google didn’t acquire Nest for their digital thermostat, as useful as it is. Google saw in Nest an opportunity to invest in a winning team that could pursue the most ambitious dream for the future home.

Similarly, the most successful IPOs aren’t just on the back of great metrics but also involve an underlying devotion to a big, important, monetizable mission. To the new money coming in, clear signal of commitment is critical and it can’t be manufactured “on demand” when a company is looking to sell or go public.

COMMITMENT IS 365 DAYS A YEAR

Whole-body-and-mind commitment does help you turbo launch out of the gate. It can attract amazing co-founders and employees. It can give you a big edge when raising seed capital. But, of course, exuding commitment is not enough — you need to immediately and then permanently demonstrate it, day after day, with each passing moment.

A ten year commitment involves a huge number of meetings, interviews, documents, emails, conversations, presentations and more — roughly 100,000 tasks from start to finish. Each task is an opportunity to be present and focused, and to bring the whole of you: capabilities, values, and mission. Do that, and you really show your continuing commitment.

The good news is that amazing things happen if you can apply consistent effort over a long period of time. But, a single flub can really set you back. For example, being very disrespectful to a colleague at a company meeting perhaps because you let frustration get the best of you — that single moment can have profoundly bad consequences. It isn’t so hard to do the right thing, you just have to repeat times 100,000.

FOCUS + TIME = EXPERTISE

Ten years is also a magical number when it comes to developing expertise. While some founders bring deep industry expertise, many successful founders put in the ten years that it takes to become the expert in your field. Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers discusses his research which showed that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is required for expertise. If you are in it for TEN years focused on your mission, you’ll find that you’ve spent at least 10,000 hours in developing your craft.

Conversely, many competitors will not be able to match you step for step over a TEN year commitment, so the field will thin out. Randy Pausch’s famous last lecture discussed the obstacles that enable the eventual winner to demonstrate their commitment to achieving success — those obstacles stop the others from keeping up! Once the starting gun has fired, and you vault ahead with your absolute and unrelenting commitment, you can further increase your odds simply by taking those many steps, one after another.

I remember the first couple years at Applied Semantics worrying about a growing set of competitors in our field of Natural Language Understanding. Some had better VCs and raised more money than us,others had more PhDs, and yet others had better marketing. But, one by one they seemed to be less relevant and threatening. One moved into a narrower search vertical focusing on legal documents. Another had very strong technology but couldn’t find product/market fit because they didn’t narrow enough on a use case. A couple went through early acqui-hires. And one just spent too fast and ran out of money. A few years later we found ourselves still standing, alone in the sole position to leverage years of expertise, data and technology to dominate a massive new market in contextual advertising.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Some statistic analyses have concluded that startup success is exceedingly rare. For example…only .06% of startups reach unicorn status. But, any data scientist knows that stats can be manipulated to fit your headline. The truth is for the small subset of founders who commit AND follow through on the 10 year process — the chances of success are significantly higher.

Personally, I have dedicated myself twice now, over 20 years to two companies: Applied Semantics and Factual. Each has required over 100,000 small tasks that I’ve given my best efforts, each an opportunity to demonstrate my ongoing commitment. It hasn’t been easy, but both have been incredible journeys filled with learning, shared achievements, and fun.

Building a company is very much about the journey, continually committing to making each step count and not getting fixated on the eventual destination. Are you ready to commit?