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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This Too Shall Pass

With all of the activity at work over the past 18 months as well as a host of mid-life course corrections, I have been negligent in feeding the blog gods. With Maria Katris's kind encouragement at Built in Chicago, I thought I would start posting more often.

One topic that comes up with increasing frequency these days is around managing one's future or career. In addition to all of the bubbly successes, there is a growing amount of stress and angst. Every entrepreneur and VC, at some point in time, has had one (if not many) gut wrenching, anxietal periods. Like a bad night at Texas Hold 'em, the cards keep coming up weak and you begin to question both your sanity and why you are doing what you are doing. Sometimes this is because others are hitting winners in the new SoMoLo (social, mobile, local) wild frontier while you watch and sometimes, it's because you are simply struggling to keep your head above water (dealing with debt, personal issues, non-scaling business, etc). Worse yet, you extrapolate out from today towards a draconian future. It's a terrific formula for sleepless nights (that or writing late night blog posts…).

In all my years, somehow, that draconian future never seems to hit like people think. While they don't get what they want, they often get what they need (thanks, Mick, for the words). So, when things just don't seem to be going your way and others seem to be passing you by or your future is opaque (and driving you nuts), what should you do?

My friend Carter reminded me of a Lincoln tale. When asked how he dealt with setback and issues he recounted a tale about a king who sent his wisest sages out into the world to find out how to live a content and fulfilling life. They returned, huddled and came back with a common finding…the words "This too shall pass".

In my favorite personal blog post, The Significance of the Karma Bracelet, I discuss my own journey down such a path during the last Bubble apocalypse. And again, in the past two years, nearly every aspect of my life has changed and one thing that has kept me balance and moving forward optimistically are these four words. Another friend once said, when you find yourself reinforcing your stress by linearly projecting the present, stop…don't think out more than 2 days and focus on what you have the ability to change not the phantom ghosts you can't. Things will change, synchronicity will come into play and life (or company) will right itself. Nearly all great start-ups have to nearly dance with death at least once and you haven't earned your stripes if you have not found yourself lost at sea in a foggy mist. As my partner, Ed, once said, it is a lot harder to kill a company than you think.

That said, what have you found to be helpful in handling adversity, setbacks and stress?


Outliers and the Causes of Success

"The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not
there to keep us out; the brick walls are there to give us a chance to
show how badly we want something. The brick walls are there to stop the people who don't want it badly enough. They are there to stop the other people!
                — Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

I have always been interested in the studies on the "Expert". In these challenging markets, resilience becomes increasingly central to success. Why is it that the middle or high school star (President, etc) is usually not the eventual star in life from the class? How can two people grow up in the same environment and the one with less innate skill end up succeeding? How can 10 start-ups launch and one pulls away from the pack even though it did not have the "rockstar" team?

I have posted twice on the subject — The Expert Mind and The Passion for Greatness. With the publication of Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers: The Story of Success, there is increasing discussion around this topic now. Gladwell confirms previous research that lays out that success is not driven by innate ability (though "nature" does bracket how far "nuture" can go). He describes how "purposeful" hours of practice are a key driver (10,000 hour rule) and also concludes that environment & circumstances also play a considerable role.  This applies not only to athletics (Jordan/Woods are the first to practice and last to leave…obsession on improvement) but business as well. He describes how Bill Gates was able to launch Microsoft because his school had access in the late 1960's to mainframe computers when others didn't (environment gave him a leg up).

In a recent NY Times editorial, Lost in the Crowd, David Brooks takes exception with the over-emphasis on environment over initiative. One of our local entrepreneurial stars, Howard Tullman, emphasized one section in an email he sent around. I agree fully with the conclusion that success, while enhanced by environment/fate, is eventually driven by effort and passion. As Jim Clark, founder of Silicon Graphics, Netscape, Healtheon/WebMD & myCFO, once said, "Great companies are willed into existence". From Howard's excerpt:

"Yet, I can’t help but feel that Gladwell and others who share his
emphasis are getting swept away by the coolness of the new discoveries.
They’ve lost sight of the point at which the influence of social forces
ends and the influence of the self-initiating individual begins.

Most successful people begin with two beliefs: the future can be better
than the present, and I have the power to make it so. They were often
showered by good fortune, but relied at crucial moments upon
achievements of individual will.

Most successful people also
have a phenomenal ability to consciously focus their attention. We know
from experiments with subjects as diverse as obsessive-compulsive
disorder sufferers and Buddhist monks that people who can
self-consciously focus attention have the power to rewire their brains.

Control of attention is the ultimate individual power. People
who can do that are not prisoners of the stimuli around them. They can
choose from the patterns in the world and lengthen their time horizons.
This individual power leads to others. It leads to self-control, the
ability to formulate strategies in order to resist impulses. If forced
to choose, we would all rather our children be poor with self-control
than rich without it.

It leads to resilience, the ability to
persevere with an idea even when all the influences in the world say it
can’t be done. A common story among entrepreneurs is that people told
them they were too stupid to do something, and they set out to prove
the jerks wrong."

Pursuit of Happyness

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that
they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among
these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
— Declaration of Independence

I saw a very intense movie with my wife and another couple just before vacation called the Pursuit of Happyness starring Will Smith. It is based on the true life story of Chris Gardner who sacrificed everything in the pursuit of his dream of making it to Wall Street. My wife was expecting something a little lighter, so be prepared for a serious movie about perseverance.

I am thinking about taking my kids to it to reinforce two things: 1) that like on the Chicago North Shore is not the norm and that large parts of America struggle to make ends meet (versus crying over not getting a new pair of Healy’s) and 2) the power of perseverance and having dreams. In this story Gardner risks it all to give his son a better life. It is a very moving story. In one scene (in the ads so I’m not ruining much), he is homeless and has to spend a night in the train station bathroom with his son. It tugs at your heart to see him trying to keep his son asleep as the tears flow while someone continuously knocks on the door to get in.

It puts things into perspective; it highlights how what we view as tragic or important in our daily lives is more disappointment and inconvenience; it also shows how close success and failure are and that nothing in life is guaranteed.

Critics liked Smith’s performance but thought it over reaching at times. I don’t disagree, but a cool movie overall.

— Matt "VC Ebert in training" McCall…

Wall of Worry

"The temptation to quit will be greatest just before you are about to succeed."
— Bob Parsons, founder of GoDaddy (supposedly from a Chinese proverb)

It occurs so frequently that it has become a cliche. The entrepreneur who is on the verge of dismal failure, grinds it out and builds a successful business. In many ways, failure is a rite of passage in the entrepreneurial world. Why? In many ways, it sometimes takes failure to strip away fascades and show what is really important in life and to redouble ones focus on those items. Sometimes, it strips away constraints, pseudo goals and pretenses. However, nothing in life is guaranteed.

The following is a short passage I came across on Buckminster Fuller. Interesting story that I was not aware of…

Life Brings Idea, Idea Brings Life
It’s true
that Buckminster Fuller had a flair for designing and making things
even as a child. As he grew up, he also demonstrated a flair for being
a non-conformist — getting expelled twice from Harvard! He married
young, served in the Navy during World War 1, and then went into
business with his father-in-law — a business that ultimately failed.
At age 32, Buckminster Fuller found himself bankrupt, jobless and
raising a young family in poor housing. When his beloved daughter,
Alexandra, died of pneumonia, Fuller was inconsolable with guilt and
shame. He blamed himself for her death and spiralled down into an
alcohol-fuelled depression that took him to the brink of suicide. But
just as he was contemplating killing himself, Fuller was struck by the
magic creative thought that saved his life and launched him on the path
that would make him world famous for his creative thinking.

The Magic Thought That Led Buckminster To A ‘Fuller’ Creative Life
what was this amazing idea that could bust through the walls of
suicidal depression and wrench a man back towards life? What thought
was so intriguing and worth living for? Well, in his depressed mindset,
Buckminster Fuller had been thinking about everything that was wrong
with the world and all the awful challenges it faces. And the idea that
struck him was so exciting to him that he resolved then and there to
put it into practice and see where it led. In his own words, he
embarked on "an experiment, to find what a single individual can
contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity."

Unleashing YOUR Creativity
The World we live in
faces many challenges: environmental, social, economical,
political. Those problems can seem so huge and insurmountable that we
often give up on them before we even try to tackle them. But the mind
is designed to meet creative challenges. The way to unleash its
creative power is through responsibility and decision. When you decide that it’s up to you, that you
are going to do it, then your mind gets into gear and starts working at
a higher level. We are purpose driven beings. And in each and every one
of us there is a core desire to be of use. We all want to help make the
world a better place. We all want to make a significant contribution.
We all want to demonstrate to ourselves (and others) that our lives
have meaning, that we are important, that we are more than just an
"eating, sh*tting and fu**ing machine". And so, your enormous personal
creative power is unleashed by Buckminster Fuller’s thought: What can I do? How can I help? How can I make this world a better place? How can I help humanity have a better life and a better future?

Just Showing Up

"80% of success is just showing up."
— Woody Allen

Patience and resilience are core requirements for the entrepreneurial world. Often, it seems like an eternity as you wait for customer behavior to come around or for a market to take off. You do everything you can to keep the company afloat so that you don’t get taken out during the drought At some point, you begin to get up every morning wondering why you are doing this…the low salary, the fire drills and stress, the long hours and the frustration. And then, just when you’ve had enough, the market begins to come around. One customer buys, then another and another. Eventually, you are scaling rapidly and your issues turn to operational issues and efficiency.

This, unfortunately, is more the norm than the exception in the technology world. That said, persistence and "just showing up" each day can, in the end, result in nice win for you. I have often said that if your vision is right, it doesn’t mean your timing is (right product, wrong decade). Since you can’t control the latter, you have to keep your faith that eventually, the boat will turn.

One example of this is the photo service, Shutterfly. I did not even realize that they were still around post their initial battles with Ofoto (now Kodak Easyshare) and Snapfish (owned now by HP). The New York Times article, A Dot-Com Survivor’s Long Road, does a good job laying out this journey. When it went public recently, it re-affirmed my faith in the power of persistence and tenacity. Many a time, a company will start with big hopes, hit a series of challenges and disappear from the public scene only to re-appear several years later with a viable business model and scale.

Now, how you manage the long periods in the desert is more of a personal journey. Just remember that 80% is within your control…

Evangelical Entrepreneurs

"I didn’t want to repeat my parents’ life. I saw in their lives a routine and a lack of dreaming, a lack of the possibilities, a lack of passion. And I didn’t want to live without passion."
     — Hugh Hefner

What makes an evangelical entrepreneur. He/she is a staple image of the technology world. They are everywhere, willing new worlds into being…Gates, Ellison, Jobs, Sergey & Co, the list goes on. For most entrepreneurs, day to day existence is much more practical and mundane. What drives this difference and what is the dangerous other side of that coin?

I came across the idea for this post in church this past Sunday. The sermon was on "Which Excellence" and started by diving into the escalating issue we all, as parents are facing…the race to the lowest denominator in which we uber-program our children earlier and earlier. A local Winnetka Wall Street Journal writer is quoted as saying:

"Every weekday morning this summer I have dropped my granddaughter off in front of the New Trier High School, in posh Winnetka, Illinois, with a slight feeling of depression…Yet I feel a slight sadness when I contemplate their (students’) energy, their too-early-in-life resume building, all devoted to a path of success set out for them by others."

He goes on to talk about the Lutheran and Puritan work ethics that drove the initial creation of the country (matched by equally disciplined ethics from other religions and cultures over time). "Americans have always worked harder than everyone else, believing that their identity and self-worth depend on it." Entrepreneurs have this in spades as they are one step ahead of the undertaker in the dog-eat-dog worth of technology.

Hard work, discipline, maniacal focus are all key to successful entrepreneurship. However, evangelical entrepreneurs have something else, something that shields them from the daily grind and frequent disappointment. They are driven by a deep care, passion and moreover, often, love for what they are doing and, better yet, hoping to achieve.

Before you cast off this post as another 20,000 ft high touchy, feely drabble about passion, let me be specific. I am not saying that you need to be passionate about what you are doing because you likely are. I am saying that you need to be clear about what it is, exactly, that is the heart of that passion. Why did you jump into your current endeavor and what is the impact on the world that you hope to leave? Remember this, write it down and revisit because, just like the high school senior, as you get into the bowels of execution, very quickly it will become about small tactical achievements. It will become about amassing a resume of pseudo events and successes…many being defined by others. Inevitably, you will lose sight of what originally got you into the business to begin with and it will become about closing the next customer, getting the next press release and trying to make as much money as possible.

The issue here: just like with our kids, you risk burning out, losing touch with yourself and ending up winning the battle and losing the war. My simple advice is to care. Care about what you do. Care about the impact your business has on the world around it. Care about your employees. Care about your family. Care about helping others (you can still "care" about crushing your competition also…). Remember what drove the initial passion and why your cared about it. Most entrepreneurs, within a matter of a couple of years, lose sight of this. You can see it in their eyes. They have lost the Northern Star and are just grinding it out. They have little resilience and often, at this point, they burn out. They can often grow bitter of the "lot" that fate or the market cast their way. This does not need to happen if you continually revisit, remember and refresh. That Northern Star will drive others to see you more in an evangelical role than as a grinder.

Of course, this still leaves open the question about our kids and what society (and parents) are doing on that battlefront. I am torn daily between pushing my kids as hard as possible to succeed in an increasingly competitive world and letting them set their own pace and appreciation for what they do and what they care about. But, alas, that is for another post…

Our Greatest Fear

I saw another great movie this weekend with the wife and kids called "Akeelah and the Bee". You have probably either seen it or at least read about it in the papers. It is the story of an 11-year old girl from the poorest region in South LA who strives to win the national spelling bee. There is a lot of good stuff in it for both entrepreneurs and for young kids about perseverance, overcoming obstacles and addressing fears. One of the greatest fears that we all deal with is the fear of failure. Whether it is the child preparing for a tournament or test or an entrepreneur launching a business, fear continually nips at your heals. Lawrence Fishburne had an awesome quote on his wall in the movie for inspiration. I thought of all of you future Sergey’s and Jobs’s…

Our Greatest Fear

by Marianne Williamson from her book “A Return to  Love”

Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles 

Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate,
but  that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us.
We ask  ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant,
gorgeous, handsome, talented and  fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.

Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing  enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won’t feel insecure around  you.

We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us.
It is not  just in some; it is in everyone.

And, as we let our own light shine, we consciously give
other people  permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our fear,
our presence  automatically liberates others.

Bouncing Back

"When God closes a door, he opens a window"

There are a mulititude of stories of entrepreneurs bouncing back from failure. However, none are as literal as Norman Stingley. Norman was a chemist for a rubber company that made "blow out preventors" for oil wells. He discovered a material and process that failed miserably in its applications on the wells, but had some unique characteristics. When compressed, it stored and released a significant portion of the original energy. After some creative thinking, he shaped the material into a ball and pitched it to Wham-O, the maker of Frisbee and Hula Hoops. It was introduced several months later in 1965 as the Super Ball that our children love to bounce around today…

Quindlen Commencement Speech

Slowly but surely, I find myself becoming a commencement speech junkie. Perhaps it is because we all look for inspiration and affirmation in our lives. Anna Quindlen is one of the most talented columnists of our generation (in my humble opinion). I came across this speech by chance when I was trying to chase down the Lennon quote for my previous post (never underestimate the power of serendipity…). You can click on a transcript of her Villanova Commencement Speech here.

To get a sense of the flavor of her speech, I have an excerpt below:

"Don’t ever forget what a friend once wrote Senator Paul Tsongas when
the senator decided not to run for reelection because he’d been
diagnosed with cancer: “No man ever said on his deathbed I wish I had
spent more time in the office.” Don’t ever forget the words my father
sent me on a postcard last year: “If you win the rat race, you’re still
a rat.” Or what John Lennon wrote before he was gunned down in the
driveway of the Dakota: “Life is what happens while you are busy making
other plans.”

You walk out of here this afternoon with only one thing that no one
else has. There will be hundreds of people out there with your same
degree; there will be thousands of people doing what you want to do for
a living. But you will be the only person alive who has sole custody of
your life."