Back to reality

It is easy to start a new year with a stable of clichés. “These are the first pages of a 365-page book.” “New year, new you.” For entrepreneurs, whose personal identities are inherently intertwined with their startup ventures, a new year often gives less opportunity for this form of personal self-reflection, and more for cautiously appraising year-end financials and estimating burn rates and fundraising rounds over the next few months.

What can be said with certainty about the new year, is that it is virtually impossible to predict, and the next 12 months will bring with more ups, downs, and shocking surprises than any of us can predict or forecast – especially in the roller coaster world of start-ups. So this is my little reminder that while annual planning is important – frankly, it is essential – it is not in and of itself a measure of success or a harbinger or good news to come. Dwight Eisenhower said it perfectly, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

One of the most impactful moments of my grad school career was meeting a couple of entrepreneurs who walked us through “Exhibit 14,” the unofficial timeline of their company. The milestones I remember are not the ones you would think – hired a co-founder, raised the first round of capital, got the product to work the first time – but rather the completely out of nowhere externalities that wound up hitting the business. From their first office burning down, to the founder’s car broken into and the contents (with important prototype info) stolen, to various personnel crises and fiascos, theirs was the first example I saw that actively acknowledged the role that “reality” plays. If I had seen their timeline in a slapstick comedy movie I would have described it as too ridiculous to be credible. But it was real, and each of these unforeseen events had an impact – good and bad – that helped define the company.

It also made me pause and take stock of some of the “Exhibit 14” events I experienced back in my start-up roles. Not being able to get lunch for a week because there was a shooting at the restaurant next door, and its windows and walls were decimated. Having our CTO stranded in another country because of visa issues, and having him lead our team via Skype for weeks. Walking into a morning media meeting to see my counterpart across the table visibly intoxicated / hungover. Having to step over the unconscious homeless person on the doorstep of our co-working space every morning. Denying, and then coming to terms, that a trusted member of our team for years had been embezzling funds. Meeting someone at a bar that turned into a colleague. The list (at least the list that is fit to print) can go on and on.

The only certainty is change. So make those plans, keep an eye on your cash position, build your product roadmap – but above all else, have a sense of humor. Because, with certainly, you will experience “Exhibit 14,” but the only thing an entrepreneur can manage is how he/she reacts to the situation and shapes it as part of the company story. Make it a story you’ll want to tell for years.

─ January 12, 2015