We Could Be Heroes

We Could Be Heroes

Simon Jenner

Sunday, 23 May 2021

Understanding the motivations that drive founders helps to better understand their chances of succeeding.

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In the summer of 1993 I was sixteen years old and obsessed with music. I spent all my time learning guitar, buying records and writing to my favourite bands. I was an inveterate letter writer, always trying to find out more about the musicians and labels I admired and it often paid dividends in the form of demo tapes, t-shirts and trinkets.
On the last day of our summer break I went with a group of friends to see my favourite band. I was pretty excited about having tickets and had sent them a letter to that effect some weeks before. On the night of the concert an amazing thing happened. Between the main set and encores the drummer wandered out on stage and, after winding the crowd up a little, he casually asked, “Hey is Jof here tonight?” For just a moment I felt like the star of my own movie, struck dumb by being called out by one of my heroes.
I firmly believe we go through life chasing that moment where we feel like the hero in our own story. Where the music swells, we beat the baddies and get the girl. We dream of the day where we can ruefully ruffle the hair of our sidekick and say, “Well Pippin, we only went and did it! Now, let’s walk meaningfully into the sunset.” Nobody grows up hoping that they’ll be a really efficient middle manager in a telecoms business. We wan’t to score the winning goal, play on the main stage at Glastonbury festival, walk on the red carpet. 
When you’re a teenager everything has that electric feel. Nights spent drinking cheap cider under the stars, first kisses, break-ups, even just hanging out having a laugh. Everything somehow feels like part of an epic story arc leading to a life less ordinary. Even looking back now (and I’m quite old) my teenage years seem to have had the spirit of a John Hughs movie. But gradually adulthood comes and somehow chasing that feeling gets harder and harder. 
I think that drive to find the same highs of youth is at the heart of every Startup (and cocaine purchase for that matter...but that’s another blog post). I firmly believe that people jump into the cold waters of self employment dreaming of the day where they sell their company, the champaign corks pop, money rains from the sky and some father figure steps into frame and say’s “I knew you could do it son, I never doubted you for an instant!” The mental image of startup life is an ultra-hip office in a New York loft, whiteboards and cool young colleagues sipping great coffee while they debate strategic vision. Work hard, play hard. Perhaps I’ll even hire all my friends …yeah!
Of course it’s never quite like that. Offices are expensive as are colleagues. Even good coffee might be a stretch in the first year. When you first get started money is too tight to mention and the runway is always getting shorter so year one is usually pretty lonely. My friend Oliver carried his company around in a rucksack for a couple of years eking a tiny budget out like a true digital nomad. We used to steal spoons for our office. When you finally have the money to hire, you hire carefully and well. Never, ever hire your friends. Your startup is not an episode of The Monkeys and the inevitable day when you have to fire your best mate is horrifying. 
Still one day you’ll sell the company and that’ll be amazing right? Well, no. Not really.
The sale process of a company is protracted and it contains plenty of kicks in the teeth (paying out toxic shareholders, being gouged by tax etc). There are warranties, termed payments, earn outs and other handcuffs. It’s not easy or pleasant and somehow you always end up feeling stiffed. The actual completion is usually a phone call from a solicitor at 2pm on a random afternoon to say, “All the conditions are now met, we’ve executed the share purchase agreement and released the funds in escrow.” You’re not in some big board room eye to eye with the seller. No-one slides a briefcase full of cash across a table. Most likely you’re shopping, or in a meeting. When the dust settles you’ll probably buy a slightly nicer house, car, treat yourself to a holiday. 
The thing is heroism isn’t like it is in the movies. Your heroes journey will never be a well plotted struggle with a perfectly constructed denouement. 
I’m currently sat in the garden of a friend who recently passed away. It’s a really lovely place and it’s nice to have this time to think about him. I always said he was a real life superhero. He was a paramedic. A man that bought comfort, relieved pain and saved actual lives daily. Of course he was too humble to accept the praise as paramedics always are. But that’s how real heroes work. Not one great story but hundreds of small ones passing by without recognition. Hundreds of little acts of heroism.When you construct a business it should have a mission. The mission should be something you really believe in. If your mission is to make money go and get a job. Startups can be financially rewarding but they often take a long time to deliver an income. You’re going to need something to sustain you while you wait. That sustenance comes from a belief that what you are doing is important and worthwhile.
Our mission has always been to build one million startups. To achieve our goal we have had to build a model that services all founders, no matter who they are or where they come from. It's a mission that has the benefit of allowing us to help people to realise a dream and, often, to start to earn, hire and to feed the families of their team. We get a chance to create little moments of heroism each day too and they sustain us and push us to do more.
I hope that, in designing a startup, you find a mission that feeds your soul so that even if the road is lonely and the exit is unsatisfying you can look back and think “we really did something worthwhile. We got to be heroes.”

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