Remembering When Elon Almost Went Under

To all the aspiring entrepreneurs battling through COVID: With the hopeful Crew Dragon launch on Saturday, Elon will show us yet again what the human spirit is capable of and usher in manned space flight’s next chapter. However, I remember & experienced when not one but all three of his companies were on the brink of extinction at once at the end of 2009. Tesla was running out of money ( had a count-down timer), SolarCity lost its California tax incentives (rev dropped 90%) and SpaceX was down to one final, make or break rocket launch. The co-founder of Paypal was deep in the red.

I’ve known Elon since we were on a board together in the early 2000’s. When I was at DFJ Portage, DFJ was an early or initial investor in all three of his companies. We saw our investments flirt with death and witnessed first hand Elon’s tenacity, focus and force of will during this dire time. Below is an interesting short montage:  
There are a lot of things that make Elon who he is. At the risk of way over-simplifying, here are a couple:

  1. Be clear on your purpose & make it worthy as you will be tested hard. Too many entrepreneurs focus on the wrong things like making a fortune or feeding their ego with status/success. These provide no support and become emotional boat anchors during trying times. SpaceX: make space flight affordable to almost anyone (also, ensure the survival of mankind) and give people a sense of excitement in the future.
  2. Focus on only the key technical limiters in the way.  When Elon is focused on an issue, he is maniacally single-threaded in his attention. A common Entrepreneurial error is being distracted or focusing on non-essential matters. Know the core 1-2 things you need to deliver on for success and focus obsessively on it/them. Tesla: one was to build a 300 mile EV battery that wouldn’t burn up.
  3. Take definitive action in the face of fear and be relentless in your commitment. As Edison said:

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up…I have not failed [regarding the light bulb]. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  — Thomas Edison

In the end, Mercedes invested in Tesla (for the battery tech above) which triggered a $465m government loan. Fisker was not able to deliver on its tech, failed to get a loan and went under. SpaceX’s final rocket successfully launched, generating billions in launch backlog. Solar City’s subsidies came back.

So, as you strive diligently in these hard times, remember that daylight is around the corner eventually. As the Under Armor Phelps ad says: “What you do in the dark puts you in the light…Rule Yourself”.

Embracing Life’s 8-10 Year Cycle

Roughly, every eight to ten years, life seems to cycle through like a brush fire to clean up the excesses of the past decade. I’ve experienced this both on a personal and business level four times now (in addition to the 1987 one day 23% market drop).  The Great Financial Crisis cycle has abruptly ended and the next cycle has begun. The core paradigm has also changed from fed protected economic growth powered by dropping interest rates to fiscally driven money printing & deficit spending.

This viral crash scares the crap out of us on many fronts. However, with each new cycle, new opportunities, new trends and new paradigms arise. New rules lead to new ways to profit and challenge the incumbents. Furthermore, we have time to reflect on our lives. We get knocked out of our set ways and have a chance to learn, grow and improve. This can include job loss, financial distress and companies going under. In 2000, a lot of companies went under but people eventually found new opportunities but brought with them the wisdom learned. As cycles age, we get stuck in old patterns and behaviors. We lose sight of why we are even doing things at times. With the brush fire, we have an opportunity to look at everything with fresh eyes…if we let it. As David Whyte wrote:

“You increase your velocity…But are afraid that if you stop  you won’t know who you are. You have no affection for what you’re doing but you have an abstract thought that this is what you must be doing…The key to getting out of the cycle is to…Throw yourself away and shed the skin. As Nietzsche said, the snake that does not shed its skin must die”

During each cycle, a catalyst exposes the excesses from the previous cycle, creating a violent reversal/crash. We respond by trying to survive. Greed & FOMO shifts to fear. We simplify our lives, reduce expenses and go to church/mosque/synagogue/yoga and promise to reform/change. We focus on the fundamentals, endure hardships, change or modify jobs and re-evaluate our lives. We eventually find our footing and begin to rebuild our lives. We are more intentional and thoughtful for this window and profit from the occasional run up in the markets or our firms. Eventually, like child birth, the trauma of the past crash fades to be replaced with FOMO compared to those taking more risks. The excesses start to rebuild, debt grows in pockets and valuations start to reach head scratching levels. We keep playing at the casino, thinking that this has to correct but stretch further and further (higher P/E ratios, higher acquisition multiples, lower cap rates, etc). Like a rubber band, it eventually snaps from being stretched too far and we start over again.  In the middle of all of this, our relationships also go through stages, are stretched, tested and transform (sometimes snap) under the amplified pressures of the economy. We re-examine what is important to us; we are forced to slow down; and we recommit, often, to being higher versions of ourselves.

I’ve seen four of these crashes now (plus growing up in the economically surreal 1970’s). In 1990-2, we had a recession that crippled the commercial real estate market, bankrupting many developers and properties. In 2000-2, the NASDAQ dropped nearly 80% in the dot com bust. Three years in the desert eventually led to the creation of LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. In 2008-10, we all know about the Great Financial crisis. Elon nearly lost all three companies but persevered. Eleven years of bull markets and lower interest rates ensued. In 2020, the most surreal of catalysts has launched a new cycle. The government is racking up deficits/printing money at unprecedented rates. 

When cycles change, it creates massive disruption but also opportunity both in business and personally.  The brush fire is roaring through, the skin is shedding. As the Rahm Emmanuel said: Never waste a good crisis”.  There are a number of things to reflect on. A couple include:

  • Your customers are in pain and facing new challenges. How can you help them? What new offerings or adjustments to your product can you create?
  • What new trends and realities are driving the economy? What new behaviors? How to leverage the past cycle infrastructure of AI, IoT, cloud, genomics, etc to solve?
  • Demographically, we also have a generational shift with the rise of Gen Z (plus Millennials are hitting economic importance).  How are their buying patterns different, especially in light of this crisis?
  • Study after study concludes that the strength of your relationships drives happiness more than any factor. You are the sum of the five people you spend the most time with. Use this time to assess and strengthen your friendships and your connection with spouse/partner & kids. For example,what two things could you do to tighten your familial foundation? 
  • If you are feeling stuck at work, why is this? What excites you each day? What do you dread? Are your values aligned with your firms? Do your strengths align with the needs of the firm?
  • What would bring more joy into your life? What should you do more of? What should you do less of?
  • Get out a piece of paper and journal non-stop for 20-30 minutes. What is the life you want? What does it look and feel like (get specific)? What two things can you do to start moving in that direction?

This too shall pass. It is brutal and scary and I feel for everyone going through hardship. The Phoenix shall rise from the ashes. It always has and always will. The key question is how do you want to show up in this new cycle?

If I Lose My Fear, Do I Lose My Drive?

I hear this a lot from entrepreneurs and students. “If I lose my fear, do I lose my drive?”.  Two things are implicit in this question…1) fear/anxiety is an essential motivator for success and 2) being driven by anxiety & fear (often a default) has an unsustainable & unacceptable cost. This is a false trade-off…success through fear or contentment. They are not mutually exclusive.  My core belief, backed by science, is simple: There Are Much More Powerful, Sustainable & Effective Motivators than Fear and Anxiety. There is a growing base of research around Flow and Flourishing (“Yes And” solutions). I’ve often said that the anxious tennis player is no match for Roger Federer when he is in Flow. He doesn’t even know his opponent exists.

This is not a roses and puppy dog kind of existence either. Only through grit and hard work can we succeed. The question is whether we are motivated by running away from something (not enough, seeking approval, reputation loss, etc) versus moving towards something that matters, has purpose and/or is in service to others. I think Viktor Frankl said it best:

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”  — Viktor Frankl

This calling doesn’t need to be solving world hunger but could be something as simple as building the best culture and company focused on a given SaaS platform or AI or e-commerce. There is what you do but equally important is how you do it (think Tony Hsieh at Zappos) and what values you instill in your firm or life. Anyone can do this…I remember talking with the janitor of 30 years at my son’s school. He said he got up every morning with a smile because he knew his cleaning would help teachers & students take pride in their school. Furthermore, he went out of his way to connect with young kids, especially those who seemed to be having a tough day, to bring some kindness into their world.

Our default setting is to “grind it out” so we’ll finally attain contentment with our next achievement. We are told that only the paranoid survive (Andy Grove, Intel) and the anxiously obsessed will eat our counter-parts for lunch. We have day to day responsibilities like winning accounts, getting product out or managing teams and “grinding it out” works perfectly fine.  We ignore the brain science, organizational research or piles of burnout students/execs that contradict this. We fear that we will become roadkill and our resulting behavior drains us.

Jim Dethmer, co-founder and one of the top CEO coaches at CLG, borrowing on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, says that we have five layers of motivators.  At the base is ego-centric, fear & scarcity driven motivators and at the top are selfless, trust & “enough” motivators. Don’t be naïve…there is a place in life/company for all five. Great leaders know when to use them.

  • Level 1: Fear, guilt and shame
  • Level 2: Extrinsic Reward (kill it for recognition/freedom, beast has to be fed)
  • Level 3: Intrinsic Reward (purpose, meaning, value, matters)
  • Level 4: Play, Curiosity & Learning (when work becomes play & you are curious…you can’t get enough of it…the drive for Mastery)
  • Level 5: Love (selfless, done purely for love…helping those in need, raising your kids, not asking “what’s in it for me”)

So, what is anxiety (and fear)?  Simply defined, we succumb to anxiety when we cling to the outcome of something that we don’t have control over. I wrote about this in my blog post on Choice Is All You Can Control In Life. Ego is the architect and creates stories around facts…we aren’t enough, that horrible things will happen if we don’t achieve XYZ , that people will we will be judged, etc.

We jump from fire drill to fire drill and fail to enjoy the present moment. Late last year, I had a week where I got up each day anxious, raced from meeting to meeting, focused on my personal agenda, obsessed on couple of perceived insults, slept poorly, ate crappy food and failed to spend time with family or friends. I was drained and miserable. I thought to myself how easy it is to get into this rhythm and soon realize that months, even years, had gone by. This life is a gift. How do we want to spend it? Memento Mori…only today is guaranteed. So, I’ve become very conscious about this, asking myself each night the following question below.

“If I approached all of my remaining days like I approached today, what would my 80-year-old self say to me?” 
(Were we present today, connected with those around us, mastered something new and lived a good life or did we go from dumpster fire to fire on autopilot?)

So, what exactly is going on here? We rarely have true, life threatening situations where adrenaline laced fear is critical for our survival. Scientifically, this is a battle between our three “brains”. There is an ancient coping relic, buried in our reptilian brain which triggers our Limbic system and shuts down our Rational Brain/Cortex. So, our ego creates anxiety (not us) which comes from our Reptilian, autonomic core and reduces our ability to think rationally or have higher-level thoughts.

Does this make us perform better?  No. In the short run, it may focus our attention but it actually shuts down our pre-frontal cortex. In this state, we literally can’t do higher level thinking, creative/orthogonal thinking or be emotionally intelligent/connected. Ask any entrepreneur (or student) and they will tell you that they are stressed “out of their minds” because we keep hitting the Nitrous injector like a Fast & Furious movie.  The father of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman, wrote about the permanent building blocks for a life of profound fulfillment (Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment—PERMA) in his book Flourish:

“I now think that the topic of positive psychology is well-being [PERMA], that the gold standard for measuring well-being is flourishing…Even scarier, measures of ill-being have not declined as gross domestic product has increased [twelve-fold]; they have gotten much worse. Depression rates have increased tenfold over the last fifty years in the United States. This is true of every wealthy nation, and, importantly, it is not of poor nations.”

I can keep running up the score here but I think you get the point. I don’t need to go into additional gory details about how dysfunctional & ineffective the Fear driven model is (scientific research, interviews with older, successful entrepreneurs, top life coaches, Buddhist philosophers, stoic philosophers, health experts, etc). You will more likely find someone supporting the benefits of smoking than to find a knowledgeable person advocating “the Grind” approach. And yet, our autonomic Fight or Flight system triggers again & again.

By the way, when you go down the rabbit hole, you bring your colleagues down it with you. Not only are you consciously or unconsciously instilling a misguided behavioral norm, but you are also literally impacting their neurology. Fear and Optimism are equally contagious (think market crashes and irrational exuberance).  We have “Mirror Neurons” in our brains that track the emotional flow, movement and even intentions of the person we are with. This is a key part of developing empathy to learning skills from each other to forming relationships. Our neurons (brain cells) synchronize. Like the Coronavirus, you are contagious.

The focus of this post is not to layout a playbook for Flourishing but rather to dispel the value of the alternative approach to life. I’ll continue to write about the various elements of the playbook (mindfulness, curiosity, internal not external measurements, empathy, service, clarity on values, discipline/mastery, motivation strategies, power of relationships, etc). I wish I could provide the answer but each of us carries our own unique answer within ourselves. We won’t ever eliminate fear or anxiety. It is part of our DNA. However, we can approach life courageously. Courage is not having a lack of fear but rather stepping into or through fear in pursuit of a greater cause. Make today a Courageous one!

The Three Drivers of Contentment & Motivation at Work

What motivates us to perform and drives contentment at work? Most entrepreneurs struggle with this question. You want success, want to have drive and yet rely too heavily on fear-based or external motivators which often leave a negative residue. The research shows that the most effective motivators are intrinsic and positive.

A champion needs a motivation above and beyond winning.
~ Pat Riley, six-time NBA championship coach (Lakers/Heat)

This post comes from the first part of a lunch & learn session I recently did at one of my former portfolio companies, Graphiq.

What truly motivates us? Three words: Mastery, Autonomy & Purpose. Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, reviewed the sea of research around motivation at work. While factors like money, prestige, punishment or fear can drive us, these pale in comparison to MAP. This video does a great job expanding on this work (worth the 10 min watch):

Mastery: the urge to improve, to have a sense of forward progress. In my Flow framework, this is at the heart of “thriving in the entrepreneurial journey”…defining the core elements of your identity (and focus) and then applying the habits and discipline to master the key skills critical to them. For example, in a work context, this could be “becoming the best salesperson possible” and developing the skills around prospecting, objection handling, relationship management and negotiations. On a personal level, it can be self-mastery and developing a greater sense of equanimity & patience in your daily interactions, better self-care practices (sleep, working out) and becoming less reactive to ups and downs of daily life. As you get better at something, the more rewarding it becomes.

Autonomy: the desire to direct our own lives. As we master our core responsibilities, everyone in the organization or those around us feel more confident in giving us more freedom: when we work, how we work, what we work on, who we work with. Said another way, we experience less micro-management and enjoy more degrees of freedom.

Purpose: The service to something larger than ourselves. When we do something for our own gain, it can motivate us but it is short-lived and often requires another hit (like an addict). Service can be defined in a host of different ways ranging from providing superior care to customers to mentoring junior reports to helping those less fortunate to being a role model for others. The key is that it is not focused on your own gain.

So, to reiterate…three words: Mastery, Autonomy & Purpose.

That said, none of us want to win the battle and lose the war.  Too often, we drive ourselves hard only to feel empty or drained at the end. Contentment comes from when we progress towards something better/greater versus escaping from our fears and inadequacies. Let me repeat this as IT IS CORE…focus on motivation around progressing Towards something versus the anxietal default approach of motivation through Escaping our Fears & inadequacies (e.g. the inner voice that says “look asshole, if you don’t do this right, you’ll be a failure or you’ll get fired or you’ll be embarrassed or…).

In Which Wolf Do You Feed?, I discussed the importance of Intrinsic versus Extrinsic motivations.  In his book, Pink argues that effective human motivation is largely intrinsic around mastery, autonomy and purpose. He argues against old models of motivation driven by rewards and fear of punishment, dominated by extrinsic factors such as money.

My challenge: see how you can integrate more positive, intrinsic motivators into your daily work. Define your core role at the firm, laying out the key responsibilities and outputs for this and then commit to building the skills and obtaining the knowledge to be your highest version of this (vs just getting by). Focus on the input(s) versus the output. Start with just one area or skill and go from there. Additionally, write down 2-3 ways in which your work is in service to others. Put these out where you can see them. Focus your motivation on this versus simply gaining recognition or earning more money/bonus.

Resilience In The Storm

(Originally published 2006 in VC Confidential) Resilience is a key theme you will hear about time and time again in the entrepreneurial world. The ability to persevere and bounce back from adversity is part of the DNA of a successful entrepreneur (and VC Sith Lord). During the 1999-2002 period, nearly everyone in the venture and entrepreneurial world went through an historic resilience test. No business model seemed to work, corporations and consumers weren’t buying and Darwin was taking company after company into the grave. While I hope we never see times like these again, I do believe that we will have a downturn in the next two years. With many companies relying on advertising models to support their firms, they will learn how quickly a recession can dent this model.

I remember this period all too well. I remember seriously questioning what I was doing in the venture business where all I seemed to be doing was going to board meetings to discuss why our companies were missing budget, yet again, and how many staff could we lay off. I was working long hours, thinking that if I spent enough time at it, things had to get better…right? I lost 15 pounds from stress and lack of sleep.

During this period, I read a great article by Roger McNamee, one of the awesome investors in the business (he is currently partnered with Bono and the former CEO of EA on a media fund, Elevation Partners).  He said that in times of massive macro change, there is little you can do as an individual to change your environment. You can respond by, like Homer, lashing yourself to the mast, and screaming at the on-coming storm. Or, you can use the time to truly understand what is important in your life…family and friends. In fact, he advocated that you will have limited influence on outcomes during macro setbacks, and that these are prime times to increase the amount of time you spend with your spouse and kids.

In short, his framework seemed to be: there are things that you have limited control over and that are fleeting (success at work, social standing, etc) and there are things you have considerable control over (your friendships, your relationships with your kids and wife, etc). Which do you want to tie your image of self and your happiness to? What do you want to look back at and remember that you did?

My response was to start having weekly lunches with my son at his elementary school and taking my daughter to school in the morning. I signed up to coach baseball with them. I spent more effort trying to have dinner with my family and to keep in touch with my friends. Not only did it significantly increase my resilience, but it instilled a different set of operating principles that I still use today. So, my advice to all entrepreneurs is to figure out what is your core foundation, that which is essential to you and which you have some degree of control over. Once you have, connect with it, protect it and use it to keep the rest of your life in perspective. Unleash the mast…