OK, perhaps I’m crazy, but I’ve recently come to the conclusion that if you want to run a startup – especially a disruptive, consumer-facing Internet startup – the best piece of advice I could give is to go watch the Star Wars Trilogy (the original three movies).I’m knee-deep in a startup called Empire Avenue, a crazy idea, created by a few crazy guys and trying crazily to make it all come together in whatever crazy fashion we can!
When I’m up at 4am working hard with the rest of the gang, I often look around and wonder, “how did we ever get here anyway?!” Most often I read articles by entrepreneurs who’ve been successful or (more often) who have failed. Rarely do I get to read from the perspective of those – the majority – who are, themselves, knee-deep in the business of making a scalable business. So here I am, late at night, staring at a poster of “A New Hope” and realising that running a startup is not that much different rescuing the galaxy from the clutches of the Sith Lords.
“A New Hope”
Every venture starts off like Luke staring into the desert on Tatooine, realising that life with his Uncle and Aunt can’t be everything. There’s got to be more to life! That’s the first inkling that you want to go out there and create “A New Hope.” You want to change the world, and letting go of your old life is the only way to do it. You snap up your very own Obi-Wan as a co-founder and you’re off to the races. Naturally, getting laid off, acquired, or having your farm destroyed by Imperial soldiers helps make taking that leap of faith much easier.
The first part of a startup experience is really a group of you against all the odds. You have the idea, you have the expertise – the Force, if you will – and you need to rescue the princess. It’s pretty cut and dry. Generally, no one knows you exist, and you are a guerilla force out to take down an enemy. It’s black and white, you versus them. Your goal is to create a piece of disruptive technology that will take down an intergalactic Empire or, at the very least, be a significant thorn in their side. Identifying the small exhaust vent that you can take apart a Death Star is pretty much what you have to do.
But identifying it isn’t enough; you need to be able to execute on it. The difference between Luke and every other pilot at the end of “A New Hope” is that he uses his instincts and blasts away. No matter what anyone tells you, the art of getting past the first movie isn’t training, it isn’t all the knowledge in the world. Ultimately, it comes down to you using all that knowledge and training, and combining it with your instincts and your individual Force. So take off your blinders and go for gold.
“A New Hope” is a great treatise on David and Goliath and really what every startup entrepreneur dreams about. You are Luke, Han and Leia up against the entire world and nothing will get you down.
“Empire Strikes Back”
As much as “A New Hope” is what gets us all going, the second movie is the one that really takes the fun out of the sails. There is no startup entrepreneur in the world who doesn’t wake up one morning and think to himself, “I can’t do this anymore, I can’t take the pressure.” With the Empire breathing down your neck as you flee from world to world, that once-rosy rebellion seems to be faltering. While in “A New Hope” you answer only to yourself, in the second movie, our heroes are suddenly responsible for so much more. There is financing at stake, investors wondering why something isn’t being done, and you have employees where once everyone was bootstrapped. This is a shaky time for any entrepreneur, and usually that’s when you seek the help of a Yoda. We at Empire Avenue hit that almost a month after our public launch. The site was a success, and yet, our hypothesis seemed wrong; the feedback we were getting was different from what we expected.
No matter what you think you know and no matter what your ego tells you, I guarantee you that you don’t know enough. Certainly, what you know may be flat-out wrong. It’s time to seek help. You need to find consultants, advisors, investors – whoever – that “get” you. When that feeling of being “lost” hits you, it’s time to learn that you do not “try” – you “do,” and there are people who can help by telling you what to do… but you need to listen, and listen carefully. Even then, finding the balance between doing what people tell you and understanding what you want to do might be there hardest lesson for the entrepreneur. If I had to posit a guess, this is where most companies, just like we did, pivot from their original hypothesis and into another.
The second movie is also an important turning point for Luke. It’s when he realises that he cannot be the reckless teenager and, indeed, as with the very end of the movie, that perhaps the Empire is not a homogenous enemy but rather incredibly grey. realising that perhaps your competition might teach you some lessons, rather than simply poo-pooing them, is very important in the growth phase of an entrepreneur. Indeed, identifying your particular competition – that organisation that’s stealing your personal mindshare and keeping you from being focused – is a very important lesson.
“Return of the Jedi”
There is a reason why so many movie trilogies fail. Very few can get beyond that second dark episode. If you’ve managed to shoot a few holes in a Death Star, proven that you can survive and then shown that you can pivot and listen to advice in a way that keeps your business and ideas alive, we’re onto the last movie. This is where we are now.
The outcome for us is unknown, but let me use some other startups I’ve been involved in and some wishful thinking to suggest how this part of the movie works.
Having rescued your entire team and put them all back on track toward the one goal of taking apart the Empire, you set forth with a grand master plan. Now is not the time for side projects or distractions. Your relationship with Leia can wait! In executing this master plan, you realise that your new hypothesis has led you to making friends with a population that you had never met before – the customers you have decided to truly target. I hesitate to call customers Ewoks, but let’s keep the analogy alive: with these Ewoks behind you, you are ready to take on the Empire and its new Death Star. Here’s where the startup story ends. You will end up in a giant room orbiting a forest moon and fighting tooth and nail. Will you succumb? Will you give in to the Dark Side? Will you take your place and be acquired into the Empire or will you convince the Empire to join your side?
If you’ve gotten to this point, you’ve had the luck of the Force with you. You’ve also challenged your problems well, created a great team, had a lot of fun and discovered things about yourself that you would never have otherwise found out. No, I have not discovered I am the son of Darth Vader, but then there’s still time in our little movie script for all sorts of revelations!
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