I’m a big fan of the HBO show Boardwalk Empire.
One of the famous quotes from the show is “You can’t be half a gangster.”
That line was said by one character urging the other to start acting like a full gangster and use all the tools at his disposal (violence) to resolve issues in their illegal endeavors; otherwise they’ll both probably end up on the wrong side of a gun barrel, since their competitors will be acting like “full gangsters”.
This quote and the reason for it reminds me of one simple truth in entrepreneurship. “You Can’t Be Half An Entrepreneur”. In short, if you want to build your own start-up, you have to go all in. You cannot expect to be successful if you only have half your efforts focused on an endeavor as challenging as building a company.
When I decided to do my first start-up, I quit Microsoft cold turkey, moved to Silicon Valley, and lived in my friend’s pool room. I had no funding, no health insurance, and dwindling savings. It didn’t matter to me though. I knew if I did not go all in now, I would never go for it. Eventually, we raised $10 million in venture capital, hired over 30 top notch engineers, and sold Spock 3 years later. None of this would have been possible if I took the advice of some people who told me to stay at Microsoft, slowly build out my idea, and only quit when I had funding lined up.
In my travels, I have gotten to know many people who work at big companies like Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo who want to be entrepreneurs. They ask me for advice and connections, yet many of them just cannot pull the trigger and quit their job to go for it. They keep moving their idea at a snail’s pace and hope that somehow, all the pieces will come together in the future and then they can comfortably leave their jobs.
This group usually asks me for introductions to VCs. I always say no. I tell them that no VC will take them seriously if they are not already working on their concept full-time. For every person slowly moving an idea along in a company, someone else has committed themselves full-time to the same idea. Plus, most VCs worry about non-competes or issues around IP if employees start a company while still employed by someone else in the same industry.
I get other people who want to be entrepreneurs yet complain about how they cannot afford to leave, given family obligations. To this group, I just tell them to forget their start-up dreams. They will never leave given valid commitments to supporting a family. So why waste time dreaming of something you won’t do. I tell this group to double down on their current job and try rising as high as they can in their company.
If you look at really successful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, you see that many of them went all in with regards to building their company. In many cases, these entrepreneurs risked a lot by quitting something important.
They both knew they could never reach their full potential by balancing two commitments. Plus, both saw that their respective markets moved too fast for them to wait to graduate.
When Jeff Bezos started Amazon, he left a very comfortable banking job in NYC, moved to Seattle and started Amazon out of a garage. He committed himself so much that VCs like Kleiner Perkins could not resist funding him. His ambition and commitment to making Amazon a success were just too big to ignore.
When AdMob’s founder, Omar Hamoui, decided to leave Wharton’s MBA program early to begin AdMob, I’m sure many people thought he was nuts. Yet, only a few years later, AdMob sold to Google for over $700 million. He knew that he could be an early leader in the new space of mobile advertising. If he waited another year to graduate from Wharton, he would have missed the market.
All of the examples above show the level of commitment necessary to be successful in building a company. All the founders above risked a lot by making these moves. Yet, the only reason they were able to succeed was that they went all in.
If you’re someone who is working a corporate gig and thinking about starting your own company, I recommend that if you believe in your idea, believe in your abilities, and can afford to take the risk, then go for it. You only live once, and you want to look back at life and say that you gave 100% towards your dreams.
Just remember, if you decide to stay half an entrepreneur, nothing good will happen. You’ll waste time dreaming and probably do a really bad job in your current gig. Not to mention, your competition will be working full-time to win in the same market. In short: Don’t Be Half An Entrepreneur. Either go all in the game, or stay out of the game. It’s being half in that will get you in trouble.
Originally published at www.businessinsider.com on September 21, 2012.