Survival is Success: What the Martian teaches about Entrepreneurship
Talk with any entrepreneur for much longer than five minutes and you’ll begin to hear a few war stories and see a few scars as they share the crazy journey they’ve been on.
With only 20% of most startups surviving past year 5 (Woohoo! Twin Engine Labs made it past that mark this year!), you have to be a little delusional/naive to believe you actually can survive, and somehow, provide a living for yourself and your team for the long haul.
By far, Entrepreneurship is one of the hardest ways to earn a living, and surviving the journey has incredibly low odds fraught with real dangers.
But humans still do it, despite the circumstances. There’s no book, plan, or strategy that everyone can follow and succeed. Every startup has different target markets, different outreach strategies, and different problems.
This is why a focus on the team is so prevalent. Investors and leaders bet on the jockey, not necessarily the horse.
Investors invest in people first, because seasoned entrepreneurs and investors alike know that the world is a cold, unforgiving place where anything can happen and disaster frequently strikes from the least likely places. You need to be able to think on your feet more than you need to have had tons of success previously or have perfect knowledge of the future (which is impossible).
Somehow, we entrepreneurs still find a way to survive; or we believe heartily that we can in the worst of circumstances. This is the heart of entrepreneurship.
I’ve just finished The Martian by Andy Weir (and I loved both the movie and book), a novel about an astronaut (Mark Watney — botanist and engineer) that gets left behind for dead on Mars, alone, with no communications to Earth to help him, severely limited food supplies, and with no idea what should happen next other than to make it back home.
An Entrepreneur in a Space Suit
Here’s a typical scenario: brilliant employee decides to leave her career and strike out on her own with a startup that friends and family think is doomed to die. No one understands why she would do it (she was making six figures! so successful already!), but everyone wonders if she can and hopes for the best.
She insists it can change the way we think about our world. She shows us proof about the market, competitors’ gaps they aren’t filling, her unique value proposition, costs and expenses required to achieve success, and lays out her vision of what could happen when we ask her to explain what draws her into this (and she’ll have to repeat it hundreds or thousands of times before we believe it with her).
She has investment or bootstrap capital to begin, JUST ENOUGH to make it to her initial goals before needing to either generate her own capital or receive a “supply drop” of another round (see what I did there?).
She doesn’t know precisely how to begin, only of the ultimate goals, and so strikes out and begins learning, while the clock is ticking, the capital begins to be spent and she contemplates both survival and death in the same breath.
By and large, she is alone. The problems she works on are likely problems that few people have solved. There is so much unknown that in the beginning, she encounters a new problem to survive almost weekly, and many times, these problems are “life threatening” to the company she is creating.
She has basic life support, and now needs to begin to learn how to survive and then thrive.
Alone (emotionally and often literally).
Limited Resources (capital and revenue is oxygen to the entrepreneur).
Not enough resources to make it to the ultimate goal (staff or capital or expertise), and not nearly enough to give her the edge she needs to beat her environment.
But she does have enough to maybe survive if she can avoid catastrophe often enough. Death is not an option for her.
Even still… Survival chances are extremely low.
Why would anyone do this?
Watch her for long at all, though, and you’ll begin to see breakthrough after breakthrough using nothing but her brain, her grit, some duct tape to keep it all together, and a little luck every now and then.
Soon, her survival chances are going up. The time before her company’s absolute failure stretches forward and gives hope.
The entrepreneur begins to realize that she might… just… make it.
There is nothing like that moment
And entrepreneurship is absolutely filled with these moments that very few end up being able to relate to.
It is hard to tell someone just how difficult it was for you to store and break down your own urine for use as water in those weeks that required it.
It’s even more difficult to sum up how you had to take the equipment on hand and build interplanetary communications with it.
And being able to say “I took a little of my provided food and made more food with only my brain, tripling our life expectancy” just doesn’t really hold a candle to all of the work and time you spent nurturing those little potatoes.
In other words, there’s very little that can compare, and entrepreneurs live for it.
But the survival tactics Mark Watney and our theoretical entrepreneur employed are often lost in the day to day.
The One Lesson You Should Take Away from The Martian
“At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.” -Mark Watney, The Martian
I remember during our first major crisis, my business partner and I had a conversation about when we would declare death.
It was a heartrending conversation. We were staring at our own company’s death looming in the very near future, with incredibly limited resources and information to make a decision. There were tears, there were shouting matches, and we couldn’t figure out the best way to move forward. We had to make decisions that gave us a choice between “crap or horrifying”, as Ben Horowitz says.
I’ll never forget what my partner said:
“If we have a single dollar in the bank, I will vote to use that to keep us alive or die trying.” — Brady McNaughton, Partner @ Twin Engine Labs
Survival is Success
So we decided to not go gently into the good night. We sat down and looked at the problem in front of us. We solved the first in a few hours. The next day, we executed those decisions.
Those decisions caused more problems. We took each of those, one at a time, and solved them as best we could with the limited resources at our disposal.
Many of these were life threatening situations, but we kept going despite our odds, breaking down huge problems into smaller ones.
Soon, our unbelievably risky situation became safer. We stretched our lifespan to weeks. Then months. Then quarters.
And slowly but surely, we made it to year five.
So when everything goes south on you, just remember:
Solve one problem. And then the next. And the next after that. Soon, you’ll get to come home.