Heroes in Our Failures

Below is the overview from my talk this year at the Credit Suisse Entrepreneurs' Summit at Sundance. Maria at BuiltInChicago (click to join) encouraged me to post on this, so here goes…

The Hero’s Journey

Matthew McCall

Partner at New World Ventures and Co-Founder of Draper Fisher Jurvetson Portage Venture Partners

As one of the most respected venture capitalists in the country, Matthew McCall has plenty of hands-on experience and advice for entrepreneurs. But he took a less literal tone in his breakout session to talk about the soul and spirit of entrepreneurship.

“The entrepreneur at the end of the day is really a hero,” McCall says. “It’s someone who’s stepping out of the bounds of the safe life and doing something greater.”

Citing references from mythologist Joseph Campbell, Karl Jung, and Buddhist and Hindu culture, McCall described the path of an entrepreneur. “Here’s what makes the hero’s journey scary: evolution always occurs on the fringe. It never occurs in the middle, which means, by definition, you’re not following someone else’s path. You’re on the edge of society. You’re doing something someone hasn’t done before which means there is no roadmap. There is no safety net.”

For many of the attendees in the room, McCall’s insights struck a chord, especially when he talked about the perseverance and willpower that entrepreneurs must possess. “When you hit a wall it’s the universe’s way of telling you not to stop. What happens in adversity? Some people narrow their view. Great entrepreneurs are continually widening it. Great companies are willed into existence.”

Sharing some of his personal experiences with highs and lows, McCall says, “Look, the venture world, it ain’t as sexy as everyone thinks it is. In 2000 I thought I was going to be a janitor. All of my companies were tanking. I mean, I would just literally go from board meeting to board meeting firing people.” Like the entrepreneurs he invests in, McCall had to ride out the storm, persevering and eventually turning around his business.

For many entrepreneurs, success also depends on adaptability and embracing new directions as they present themselves. Says McCall, “Life is synchronistic. Stuff just happens. That’s why Joseph Campbell says, ‘Abandon the life you’ve planned and embrace the life that’s awaiting you.’ Think about what we heard about Pandora and Facebook and all these other stories, they didn’t stay with the path that was originally planned. If you can predict it, it’s not the revolution.”

He encouraged the audience to remain true to their vision, even when facing uncertainty and fear. He described greed, fear, and avarice as “the dragons inside” that keep people from realizing their dreams.

McCall also believes strongly in the work of karma – or, as he says quite simply, “Do things for people.” He is quick to offer help and advice to entrepreneurs, students, and other investors, and believes that his good deeds return to him many times over.

When asked by an audience member what he looks for in evaluating entrepreneurs to invest in, McCall replied, “I see one of two failures. Either you have a CEO who can’t think big enough but he or she is very good at operationalizing something really small, so that’s a lifestyle business, not a VC play. The other side is someone who has got this incredible vision, but when it comes down to operationalizing it, they can’t.”

McCall believes that anyone who founds a start-up will have to face the prospect of failure, and cannot be daunted by it. “You can’t say, ‘Woe is me, I failed. I’m embarrassed. I’m humiliated. I can’t do this again.’ You’re now no longer embracing the hero’s journey. In fact, you’re terrified of the hero’s journey. You have to say, ‘I just had this experience and it was amazing because I learned all this and I’m still alive.’ And then you open up to the synchronicities.”