There is a difference between drinking your own Kool-aid and building something meaningful.
Work the problem I tell myself... work the problem... just - work - the - problem. This is the type of thing I hope people tell themselves when they are stuck and this is definitely what you should tell yourself if you're an entrepreneur. The problem could be one of a hundred things. Hell, the problem may just be that you have 100 problems. The truth is it isn't about the problems. It's about forward momentum. Did we solve all our problems today? Hell no. Did we move forward... I hope so.
Starting a company is a crazy thing. The very hubris it takes to set out on your own and believe you can create something from nothing should equally qualify and disqualify you as an entrepreneur. Some would say it isn't hubris. "No, it's a dream." They say. "These people are just chasing their dreams"... and to that I would say:
I drink my own Kool-Aid. It's purple. I think it's grape.
You see, drinking your own Kool-Aid isn't a plan. It's a pastime.
Dreams go up in smoke every day. Do not be mistaken, building a company is a crazy thing. You will run out of money at some point, payroll is a word to be feared, and yes, there will be tears and at some point you will punch a steering wheel and scream - probably in a crappy green car nobody believes you still drive. The point is this, running a startup is hard. Building is hard. It can eat you alive and no amount of financial planning can prepare you for the cost.
Work the problem, I tell myself again and again. Just - work - the - problem. This has to be worth it. All this work, it has to be worth it.
How can you know if this is worth it? The truth is I don't think there's a big enough pile of money on earth if building a bank account is the only endgame. There's a reason it's called building a company and not building a fortune. The prize at the end may be the money but the reward I think has to be the building itself.
The most proud I've ever been of our company was the day a gentleman we hired straight out of a pizza kitchen, months later, showed up to work in an Audi. The fact that at least a third of our employees buy new homes within six months of being hired... this excites me because we are building something. The fact that we will pump millions of dollars into the local economy this year and into a downtown that has the skeleton of greatness but lacked the investment, that is exciting. I think the thing I've learned is if you're an entrepreneur you can't help but be a builder and the truth is there are so many more things worth building than just a company's value.
It goes back to working the problem, but the thing is there are endless problems to take on. Some of them are IT systems, some are process breakdowns but some are humanitarian causes and social injustices. I remember the first time we found out that Idaho was the 3rd worst State in the U.S. for gender equality. I remember thinking we could do something about that. We can pay our employees equally, we can strive for a 50/50 gender work environment. We can provide opportunity where others haven't and we will become a better company, a stronger company, because of it. But here's the thing, you have to do it one step at a time, but you have to actually start and operate with some intention. That is what building looks like. You usually aren't a $100 million dollar company overnight and you don't fix gender inequality in two years. But you try really really hard. A year goes by and you see a dent. You see lives changing, you see people growing. You see an accepting and nurturing workplace developing for people with many walks of life and you realize this is what building truly is and this is how this becomes worth it.
Steve Job's famous quote "The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do"... it sounds so heroic. But there is also the more sobering quote from Frank Warren's book that says "It's the children the world almost breaks who grow up to save it". This duality is part of every builder's path. We need the crazy confident and the meek fighter. We will be a company that accepts both the daring and the damaged, the powerful and the powerless and we will find a way to build something that is worth it.
One thing not lost on us is building a company will consume a huge part of your life and life should be an adventure. Life is flaws and perfection in one thing at one time, it's a calm embrace and a comfort level with crazy. It's a disdain for insulation. It's a craving for a direct connection -- 220 volts of do-not-touch but cannot-resist. That is the Life we want so we better find a way to live while we build.
Walk the line, work the problem, build something or someone. While you owe it to your employees and your family's stability to build a profitable company don't forget to build people and bank accounts. Build platforms to take on meaningful issues and great needs. Build something so compelling once you're gone even the fading dust of your innovation knows it must do a little good, create a little beauty and leave this world even one thread better than before you stirred it.
Graphic credit: Scott Pullman