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.”


Pura Vida — Life and Entrepreneurship

"[Pura Vida] embodies a philosophy in which communal ties are strong and close; difficulties are overcome with a resilient and happy spirit, where life is enjoyed leisurely and to the full, and where fortune of whatever size is heartily celebrated."  – Tony Cousins

I have spent the past week in Costa Rica surfing, doing yoga, eating, recovering and relaxing. This is truly a different part of the world, whose charm was captured by my daughter after 3 weeks at an orphanage here. She was surprised how happy the impoverished, parentless children were, how cheerful the staff was and how welcoming the villagers were. They had little material wealth and little opportunity for advancement. It was only upon landing back on US soil, the land of opportunity, that gravity set in again. 

My journey to Costa Rican enlightenment had many more ironic and synchronistic twists and turns than my daughter's. I took a Vinyassa yoga class on my third day to detox and center myself. Unfortunately (and ironically), doing so in 96 degree heat with electricity out in the city after eating something disagreeable, landed me in bed for two days. My efforts to find my youthful surfing zen from growing up in La Jolla resulted (ironically) in badly bruised ribs which made bed that more enjoyable. Additionally, the resort I was at was full of self-contained 5 person families from the US. Half the trip shot and I was really regretting coming down during the "dry season" with temperatures too hot to zipline. To salvage a piece of the day, I went out at 5:30 to surf at sunset. I was definitely not living la Vida Pura but was sore, sick and alone (small violins please).

I should know from my own past posts that this is when the learning begins, and always from unexpected quarters. I was mesmerized by a local longboarder who would hang five (toes) on the front of the board, step on it and rotate the entire board 180 degrees while going down the wave. Eventually, I went in and sat on my board, watching him as the sun set, thinking I should tell him how amazing his surfing was but figured I'd leave before then. Synchronistically, he lost his board just at that moment and it came into shore. I could have let him get it but thought, hey, I could do two acts of kindness by getting his board and complimenting him. My good fortune…not his.

His name was Jochim from a small town in northern Costa Rica, had taught where I was taking surf lessons and now had his own small business selling excursions, renting bikes, etc. I mentioned how friendly everyone was in Tamarindo. Jochim smiled and said that while there was some crime in San Jose (& other urban areas), that generally crime was low and people generally content. Pura Vida (pure life) is the motto of the country. He said that when his friends and he go out, some one is always talking about how grateful he/she is for something, even the smallest things. He said he was Catholic but not a church goer but he would often be out surfing, with a beautiful sunset and he would look up and say thank you for such a wonderful afternoon. Friends would comment about how grateful they were for some development in their life. Because they enjoyed what they had, no matter how small versus what they didn't have, they could enjoy the present. Furthermore, they could be grateful in the midst of setback. Ironically, he pointed out that the temperatures of the dry season killed all the mosquitos so I could be down there without serious concern of airborne disease (while being laced in DEET)…synchronistic lesson right there about gratitude versus complaining. 

Gratitude has always struck me as one of those touchy feely, elusive concepts that had wiggled its way into most major philosophers/religions' core tenants. I've never really gotten it a deep level. At a high level, sure…be grateful for things around you, live a happy life. Ironically, it wasn't until my string of events & a talk with a local surfer in Costa Rica that it hit me. Gratitude is at the heart of resilience and integrity (see quote above)…and the life's blood of entrepreneurship and living a good life.

When things don't go as planned, we tend not to celebrate the small (or large) successes and fortunes of the day but rather what has gone wrong. The attitude and focus we bring to our thoughts/intentions fuses either positive or negative reality into our lives. Focus on the incredible development team you have or bemoan the issue they are having with the code; celebrate how healthy and fortunate your family is or worry about some minor issue; celebrate the large customer that been there always for you or obsess on the one you probably shouldn't be chasing. This is not to say celebrate mediocrity or let your kids gorge on TV and candy (set expectations and help them become their best). However, learn to be grateful. More importantly, seek it out…hunt for it in your every day, no matter how poorly things seem to be going. If you are grateful for what you have, you can live in and address the present versus fearing the future. I'll leave you with one last quote before signing off in Costa Rica to hit the surf…Pura Vida, my friends.

"When we are grateful we do not wish for more than we have, but appreciate that which is already present in our lives.  We do not chafe at the good fortune of others, or resent or mourn that which is missed, lost, gone, or never had.  The desire for more can be boundless and endless."    – Existential  Buddhist

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Karma Kitchen: Most Intriguing Restaurant

Rishi Roongta works with me at New World and is omnipresent. He is curious and tests just about everything under the sun. He came across a new restaurant that redefines both Paying Forward and restaurants in general. As he writes:

“Karma Kitchen was pretty awesome. I was a “waiter” and served tables for 4 hours.. gives a good appreciation for the job! And really gets everyone that comes into the doors to think about what giving truly means. Every meal ends with a check for $0 so it really makes people think how much they want to give for the next person. Anyways, I enjoyed it a ton and will definitely do it again.”

The concept is simple but ground breaking. Every meal has a $0 bill. You choose how much to give towards the next person who eats there. Truly, you pay it forward. It is also a roundabout crowd sourced pricing model. Additionally, you can volunteer to be a waiter there. Thank goodness, there is more traditional control around the cooks:)

The entire concept is built upon people’s inherent desire to give back to others…to prove that people are inherently good and caring. I plan not only to eat there but to also volunteer. There is one in Berkley, DC and Chicago.
You can learn more at: http://www.karmakitchen.org/

Talk about a value meal!

Follow Your Bliss — Finding Joe

Joseph Campbell is the most influential person to have impacted my life. He was the world's leading mythologist and had an amazing capacity to show the common threads that cut across all religions, movies, books and stories. An awesome movie just came out about him and The Heroe's Journey that I have mentioned to everyone I know. Everyone of them has referred it onto their friends. It's that moving and insightful. For anyone trying to launch a business or to find their bliss or in a life transition or…, this is a great movie to see. You can buy/stream it at www.findingjoethemovie.com.  Below is the trailer for it:


Touched by Something Greater

Even in death, Steve Jobs connects us and reminds us of something greater. It is amazing the impact that Steve's death has had. Nearly everyone I know seems saddened almost at a personal level. It's as if we all realized this special, creative presence has now moved on…communal loss. Very interesting. I think some of us almost viewed him as immortal given his many recoveries. Others realized that his creativity and entrepreneurship reaffirmed our connection to something greater than ourselves. Most feel a tangible loss. He was the ultimate embodiment of innovation and entrepreneurship…how it inspires and raises us to a greater plane. 

I've reposted his 2005 Commencement Speech (over 15m views) which I first blogged about 5 years ago. Steve, we'll miss you 🙁

Carter Cast on the “Drama of Comparative Living”

My friend, Carter Cast, gave a wonderful talk to a large group of Fortune 500 executives and non-profit leaders. I highly recommend everyone reading this to take this to heart given where Carter comes from. Carter has had a career unmatched by most I know. Starting as one of the star swimmers on Stanford's national championship team, he has progressed through a host of successes ranging from being employee 4 (CMO) at Blue Nile, defining its successful launch strategy to being the CMO of eBay to CEO of Walmart.com (growing it from less than $100m to several billion). On top of this, he is one of the most down to earth, humble people you'll meet and his former lieutenants will tell you how engaged he was in their development. Enjoy…

"For much of my adult life, a subtle form of fear has been my constant companion.  Eventually, I found myself in the position where I could no longer attempt to ignore it. It had sufficiently eroded my health that I was forced to confront it.

From my own personal experience, (and this is by no means an academic definition) fear can be grouped in three areas of descending intensity: 1) the anticipation of direct danger to one’s being—the guy in the alley coming my way, to fight or give flight; 2) the fear that something I have will be taken away—my house, my job, my loved ones. (In this category, the Buddhist preaching of acceptance of life’s impermanence has helped me.) 3) The feeling that I am not enough, that I don’t measure up to some ever-moving standard of worthiness. This last category of fear is the one I will discuss tonight.

In this categorization, there exists a kind of anxiety gap between what is and what we think should be. “I should have a PhD like Rob Wolcott.” “I deserve to be as wealthy as Ben Elowitz, because I was instrumental in building the Blue Nile business.” This is the drama of comparative living. Bertrand Russell, in The Conquest of Happiness, calls it “worry fatigue.” He says, “Envy is a form of vice which consists of seeing things never in themselves, but only in their relations.” He had a great example: “Napoleon envied Caesar; Caesar envied Alexander; Alexander I daresay envied Hercules, who didn’t exist.”

I am fairly certain that the destructive emotion of envy has increased in the age in which we are living. Amidst all of the opulence we not face the alarming gap between the have and the have-nots, we now also have the ability, due to the opening up of the world through technology, to compare ourselves to others with just a few keystrokes. We all do this. Everyone in this room has done it. How many of us have gone on Zillow or another real estate site to check out the value of our neighbor’s house? How many of us, when perusing Facebook, have seen that one of our friends just dined with someone fancy, dined somewhere fancy or become downright fancy themselves? And then and felt…envious. Today we have the dubious “opportunity” to gauge our progress relative to just about everyone with an Internet connection. And we can gauge the progress of those without one too. Meet your new neighbor, commit to memory his name, and Google the guy when you get home…Only a few hundred years ago, we compared ourselves to the work product of the one other blacksmith in our village. Now we compare our work to all the blacksmiths in all the villages throughout the land…If our values aren’t strong and properly reinforced, we will feel envious. And if we don’t pay attention to this destructive emotion, it can spin out of control and turn into a deep-set fear that we just aren’t good enough.

If you think about it, this comparative frame of reference should only matter when we’re competing in a zero-sum situation. He gets it, I don’t. There’s a winner and a loser. Yet most of the situations we find ourselves in, on a daily basis, do not involve zero-sum outcomes. In most of our life experiences, we find ourselves working with others in situations where we all can benefit. Even in very complex negotiations, creative solutions exist that expand the pie and leave plenty of slices for everyone.

So in reality, in the vast majority of the many millions of discrete moments that make up our lives, we have the ability to choose not to participate in the drama of comparative living.  And that is my epiphany: that through awareness and discipline, I can choose to see things not in their relation to others, but only in their relation to myself—in relation to my own spiritual and intellectual development. Am I increasing in my capacity to show compassion to others? Am I increasing my business skills in order to be more useful to others? Now, at night, I reflect and remind myself that my development as a human being is relative to no one else, just myself and where I was at a prior state of development.

Everyone in this room is in the bonus scoring round of life. We’ve taken the tests and passed. We’ve auditioned and gotten the gig. We’ve made it—the degree, the car, the house. We have respect. Yet the only respect we really need is our own. We can choose keep trying to make it, over and over again, or we can realize we don’t have to live our lives in pursuit mode. We don’t have to keep trying to keep up with the beat of an imaginary metronome. We can say, “I am enough.” As Thomas Merton said, “We have what we seek.” Harmony, for me, lies in this thought."


Appreciating Your Immediate World

Don Wood sent this over today. It says a lot about how we all go about our daily lives and what we miss or overlook, especially as we have our heads down in the New Normal.

..something to think about…

Washington, DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007. The man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approx. 2 thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After 3 minutes a middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule.
4 minutes later:
the violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.
6 minutes:
A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

10 minutes:
A 3-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.
45 minutes:
The musician played continuously.  Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace.  The man collected a total of $32.
1 hour:
He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.

This is a true story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people's priorities. The questions raised: in a common place environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this:  If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made…. How many other things are we missing?

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The Pixar Magic

I love stories about entrepreneurs and inventors who overcome adversity, flirt with disaster & bankruptcy, only to end up hitting the long ball.  The Economist published a great article in May describing the Pixar story.  As usual, things did not start off in a very promising manner.

"Ed Catmull's ambition at school had been to become an animator at Disney, but he gave up because he couldn't draw. "

Entrepreneurs don't often realize how long it can take to realize their dreams. Pixar's predecessor started in 1977 as a computer-graphics company. By 1985, with losses mounting and no end in sight, the founders considered selling their firm to General Motors or Philips Electronics, who appreciated the firm's technology solely for its 3D rendering capabilities for auto and medical scan imagery. They won an Oscar in 1988 which brought them temporary fame but it would be several years until Toy Story would hit. It was not until 2006, 29 years after its founding, that Disney purchased Pixar for $7.4 billion.

You should click on the Economist article "Tall tales" link to see the entire article.  Well worth the read for those of you slugging it out in the trenches, wondering if the win will ever hit. This tale shows the power of faith and perservance as well as the role that fate can play. You also can never tell exactly what form or business model will lead to that success.

The Next Tiger

Entrepreneurship is about attitude and perseverance.  Our CFO sent this over to me which I thought I would share for the weekend. It also helps to remind you what is important in life (family) and to keep things in perspective. Stick with the video as it is about a lot more than just another young sports prodigy. Enjoy.