When I turned 18, I was surprised.
I never told anyone why I was surprised, but surprised I was. Surprised of what?
That I was alive.
I wasn’t in the Army; I didn’t live in a war-torn country. No life-threatening disease.
You see, my high school, independence High in the East Side of San Jose, sits near the intersection of Story and King. When I was in school, there was a high level of criminal/gang activity (although it has gotten a lot better), and with gangs of all ethnicities, lots of brutal, horrible things.
(Before my mom freaks out, where I lived–near Milpitas–was and is a very nice middle class neighborhood. I took the bus to school, and because of where I lived, I couldn’t go to Piedmont High, which was actually closer. I don’t regret one minute of Independence. Not one. Oh, and not everyone in the school was a gang member, I had lots of friends that were honors kids, etc. Ok, I think Mom has stopped hyperventilating.)
It sounds silly to say, but it was never more apparent, as friends of mine who were gang-affiliated, got deeper into the lifestyle, that the split second it takes to pull a trigger could drastically change one’s life.
As we dealt with a strong police presence on campus, and a set of unwritten rules based in survival (I never wore a red piece of clothing until after college), thinking about the future made little to no sense.
I graduated at 17, and while I had left the majority of the violence behind in San Jose, it hadn’t completely disappeared. I still had many friends from cities and neighborhoods where violence was the norm, and it wasn’t completely uncommon to have a house party get broken up by a fight or even an occasional gun blast.
[Ok, another break for Mom. Yes, mom, when I got hit in the face with a crowbar there were gang members at that party. Yes, mom, I was an idiot, and should not have been there. I will never do it again. I promise.]
Tomorrow wasn’t something that we, that I, ever expected. Today, I could understand and control, but tomorrow?
It only took a bullet.
Why does this all matter?
We talk about the rollercoaster of startup life. Its not about good days and bad days, its about good minutes and bad minutes, often cycling so fast, that the emotions become blurred and hard to deal with. For some that leads to unbelievably sad acts. For others it creates fear driven focus, and a for a very few, it creates clarity of mission.
Startup entrepreneurs are told to focus on the now, take the issues in front of them and deal with them and nothing else, saying no to everything else.
This focus on the immediate also tends to manifests itself in the reality of building businesses for short-term acquisitions, which has birthed accelerator after accelerator who accept companies that clearly are not BIG ideas, but quick potential exits.
It is true that we are a self-delusional bunch, fueled by a tech press that–except for a very few–really understand the subject they are reporting on, and, for better or worse, investors with readily available capital. Lots of it.
But, not matter who we are or how experienced, quietly, for the vast majority of entrepreneurs, when we are by ourselves and we stop for a moment, in the midst of our inherent hopefulness, we are surprised at our companies being alive.
We are surprised because we know that the money will run out, we don’t really have a business plan, the blog press only goes so far, and, in all truth, we don’t 100% believe that the company really, truly can be BIG.
So we hear the cock of the gun, and fear the pull of the trigger and start to think about the immediate. We forget that a big company takes big plans and, more importantly, time.
That a big company happens in the future, and for that future to be real, we have to plan for it, and that doesn’t happen by just putting one foot in front of the other, and building users without thinking about revenue, or collecting talented developers and designers to make a product that scales, because scaling, well scaling is about the future right?
And investors, fueled by rapid small exits and billion dollar nuclear bombs forget that a great business isn’t an overnight business. That most great sustainable businesses take three years to find their footing. And so, for so many entrepreneurs the sound of the gun is coupled with the whispers of “go faster. do more. do it now.” And the click of the hammer is supported by shadows of other financings of the next great savant, that younger, smarter — faster — entrepreneur that will absorb the complete attention of the investor.
We, the entrepreneur, never stop to realize that we live in a community that understands the difficulties that we face, that understands the sound of the gun, and cares, really truly cares, that we succeed.
That instead of just trying to just put our fingers in the dike, we can take the time to build a stronger wall.
That bullet is never coming. The community you are in is bullet proof. You are bullet proof. You will survive it all, even the ending of your company.
Its this truth that should allow us to build and create world changing companies and opportunities free of the fear of the finality of failure.
Its this truth that should warm the founder as he thinks of his business. It should remove the need to focus solely on the immediate gratification of solving short-term problems.
Its this truth that supports the entrepreneurs ability to work backwards from a changed world to present day, and see the clear, defined, malleable path.
Every day, I think about times in high school and college where an inch would have made a lasting, significant impression on my physical well-being. There are evident and hidden scars that I’ll carry forever.
I might be surprised each day when I wake up that I have woken up. I have had the same surprise, each day, since I was a kid.
But thats me.
You have the opportunity to do something amazing; dont let fear force immediacy into your decision-making. Build something big. Focus on the future and your path to get there.
Become bullet proof.