—Four Existential Questions for Those Who Start Stuff—   

I started my business 13 years ago on April 1, 2000.  I swept together our savings, took out a home equity loan, and resigned Business Start-up Process.jpgfrom my day job.

And then promptly took a ten day vacation.

Hey, I’m a free agent, as Fast Company, the magazine, breathlessly championed during those years.  Whoopee!

The stock market was at its peak.  The Dot Com bubble was about to burst.  And I was about to enter the Dark Night of the Entrepreneurial Soul.  Oh, and my wife told me she was pregnant with our third the day I told her about my (uh, our) decision to strike out on my own.

A year into start-up, I was picking up my shirts at a dry cleaner.  The owner, who had been a military officer in the Pakistani Army, and I had struck up an acquaintance. I was grousing about how hard start-up was.

“How long have you been in business?” he asked in his high pitched, sing-songy accent.

“A year.”

“In my country, we say it takes a thousand days to start a business.”

A thousand days—that’s about three years.

He was right.  At the thousand day mark, give or take a hundred days, my business began to cash flow.

Three years, however, is a long time psychologically.

Making your house payment is one problem.  Managing the noise inside your head while mowing the lawn at the twenty-two month mark is quite another.  You may still have several hundred days of angst.  And by now, the savings and home equity are long gone. And you have to make payroll on Friday.

Whether a start-up, a new product launch, or a repositioning initiative inside a larger organization, the thousand day milestone seems to hold true.  “A thousand days” is not literal, of course.  It’s really a metaphor for “It takes a lot longer than you originally thought.”  In essence, for a new company or new product to succeed (however that gets measured), it’s going to take a while.  Yes, there are those initiatives that launch directly to the moon, but the exceptions only prove the saying.

A mentor once said, “Start-up always takes twice as long as you think and 50% more money.”

Maybe the new metrics are twice as long as you thought and twice what you originally budgeted.

Noisy questions

Through the years, we’ve worked with a host of different kinds of start-ups.  Our first client in 2000 was a one-person technology company (basically, a physicist) in California who failed within six months.  We couldn’t collect most of the second 50% of our retainer. Recently we worked with a technology company that made the INC 500’s fastest growing companies in America.  What failure and success have in common seems to be the chatter inside the mind of the entrepreneur.  There are at least four existential questions that swirl in the mind of an entrepreneur during the first thousand days:

1.  Why is this so hard? There is no other answer than “Because life is hard. Get over it.”  The cliché holds true: “If it were so easy, everyone would be doing it.”

2.  What if there is no there? What if the new business or initiative is stupid?  Really stupid?  It may be.  A friend was at the top of the house of a big league wealth management firm.  When he got whacked, he hung out a shingle.  It was humiliating to move from taking the train into the city and holding court with billionaires in wood-paneled conference rooms to sitting in front of computer screen at home in his underwear. Yeah, it felt stupid.  But he pushed through to the thousand day mark.  His new firm isn’t stupid. Let’s say you work within an organization with only a modicum of tolerance for failure (perfect suits with coiffed hair and rippling spreadsheets).  Yet you’ve been asked to develop a new product or lead the firm in repositioning the brand.  You may need a “noise therapist” for the first thousand days, someone outside the firm to say, “Yes, it may not work, and if you fail, you will rise again. Keep at it.”

3.  Should I change the model?  Adam Bosworth, former vice president of engineering at Google, coined the term “Intelligent Reaction”—the notion that the new world (the last 10 years, especially) of start-up is “Get something out there, get some feedback, and begin to iterate.”

That is, as soon as your business or new initiative launches turn your attention from your poorly written business plan and begin to listen to your prospects and customers.  Make the necessary adjustments.  In many cases, the model needs to morph from the moment the product or service hits the street.  For social entrepreneurs, there may be the temptation to say, “They just didn’t get it!” or to blame donors.  But if the donors didn’t get it, the model obviously needs to change.

4.  Is it time to hang it up?  Start-up is easy, reality is bracing.  There is no formula for knowing when to surrender.  Cash on hand is always one of the primary drivers, but after that, sometimes it’s declaring the war over or trumpeting a faux victory… and then moving on.  Living another day to start something again is always the best revenge for failure in the first thousand days.