On Motorcycles and Startups
Many who ride feel pity for those who don’t. A panoramic view of the world bleeds past you. You smell the crisp cool air rushing against your skin. Your senses are heightened. There’s a feeling of laser focus that overwhelms you. You know that this level of awareness is necessary since there’s a level of danger that you’re now exposed to. You’re completely aware of this danger, but for some reason, you’ve never felt so calm. Feelings of danger, freedom, excitement, and peace are all experienced in a single ride.
Not too long ago I purchased my own place in Atlanta, living close to my family and many old friends. I had a well paying job that allowed me to adopt a fairly decent lifestyle. My extremely supportive wife had a great job that she loved. It was no surprise, then, that almost everybody thought I was crazy for quitting my job to start something with a friend and move to the opposite side of the country.
We were aware of the “dangers” ahead, but it didn’t matter to us. It was clear that there was nothing else we’d rather do than to create something that we were passionate about.
We had to rely on our skills, and we had to hone new ones. There’s no other way about it when you’re faced with the prospect of failure. All of this had to be mixed with determination, focus, and the right amount of luck. If we messed up along the way we’d have to analyze what went wrong and why, and how we could prevent similar mistakes in the future. Everyday we learned something new that we hadn’t have had the chance to learn before. We used data and constant feedback from our customers to make sure that we were building something that people wanted. Even though we knew the future was full of unknowns, our level of excitement, determination, and focus kept us going.
Riding demands that you pit your skill and a little bit of luck to make sure that you don’t fail. If your tires are cold and go into a corner too fast you may lose traction and low-side. If you experience target fixation you might ride directly into a guardrail, even though you know you’re trying to avoid it. If you’re lucky, you get a chance to analyze and prevent the same mistakes from happening twice. Motorcycling demands a level of focus that you don’t normally experience when you’re behind the wheel of a car. You’re forced to be constantly aware of your surroundings when you realize that you are the crumple zone. It’s this same heightened level of focus that you experience everyday when creating a product at your startup.
“You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other… On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.”
— Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values
One of the benefits of working on your motorcycle is being able to make minor adjustments and then immediately noticing the difference it makes in your ride. I can adjust the stiffness of my bike’s suspension so that I’m able to go into a corner with more confidence. I can adjust the free-play on my clutch to make my shifts smoother. Every little fix or tweak I make directly affects the way that my bike rides. This is very similar to everyday decisions at a startup. Even the smallest changes to our product can make noticeable differences. On a higher level, adding the right members to our team allows us to move faster and to ship a better product. You also have to react quickly when you realize that you’ve made a bad change to the product, or when you’ve hired someone who slows you and your team down.
Motorcycling is a solitary experience but you’ll quickly realize that you’ve never before been so connected to the world around you. You’re not alone when somebody is walking on the sidewalk. They’re walking by you, not by your car. Fellow motorcyclists wave to you while you’re riding. They will start a conversation with you without hesitation because you both have a common bond. There’s a striking similarity here to conversations with other founders. Even the most successful founders will take the time to help new ones, because they’ve been in their shoes. They understand what it’s like. They share that common bond.
When I got my motorcycle many were wondering why I ended up doing such a “stupid and senseless” thing. They were astounded that I was willing to forgo the simplicity of a car for a motorcycle. I no longer can just wake up, get dressed, grab my keys, and hop into my car. I now have to add an extra ten minutes to my routine so I can throw on my motorcycle gear before I hop on my bike. They’d often remind me how dangerous it is to ride a motorcycle. They don’t realize that I’m very aware of the dangers every single time I prepare for a ride.
No matter how hard we may try, many people will never understand why we put ourselves at a greater risk while commuting when there are safer, simpler alternatives available.
In the same way, many will never understand why somebody will leave everything to start something of their own. Why would somebody voluntarily subject themselves to that level of risk and danger? Why would you leave the simplicity and convenience of your job to work harder and for less money? Why would you break out of your simple day-to-day routine and force yourself to learn and experience so much in so little time? Why would you knowingly subject yourself to insane highs and lows?
Simply put, because there’s nothing else like it.
There are people who simply can’t relate without experiencing it for themselves. The truth is: those who do, understand. Those who don’t, never will.