A Start Up Odyssey

Aug 4th, 2010

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It’s the energy, stupid.

That’s what I have to say about hi-tech startups, in 5 words or less.

In 6,000 words, I had a lot more to say. That’s the dissertation that emerged this past winter when I researched (for upwards of 60 hours) and wrote (for upwards of 25 hours) and re-edited (for an additional 5 hours) a feature article on Israel’s hi-tech start-up scene for a leading US Jewish publication. Not to mention the conferences I attended for the better part of 6 months. I spoke to founders, aspirants, service providers, VC’s, revolutionary anti-VC-VC’s, analysts, consultants, experts, and pundits in the hopes of giving readers a taste of Israel’s hi-tech here and now and tomorrow. (Which of course is by now yesterday, and mostly passé.)

100+ hours and 20+ sources for what was supposed to have been 1800 words! Had I gone mad? The short answer: Yes.

The longer answer is that I had, in a kind of Charlie Kaufman twist, become my subject. I was unwittingly re-enacting the manic trajectory of many a startup, the ones that, like my article, don’t necessarily make it.

Adrenaline aplenty at the prospect of meeting some of the industry’s luminaries, not to mention a good chunk of its aesthetic army of hipster geeks, I was besotted with my project. The fact that, after hour 15, I was largely working for free was the least of my problems. In fact, I felt rather altruistic about that, or at least entrepreneurial.

I was convinced that my enthusiasm for the subject matter, the brilliance of the ideas, and the undisputed high quality of the people I was dealing with somehow guaranteed a flawless product, even though I had totally lost focus. I think I’ve been there before. Oh, yeah. A decade ago. When I worked for an internet startup. (Still, irrationally, my favorite job ever.)

The initial assignment, and the bottom line (in both fiscal and journalistic terms), had become less important than the buzz I was getting from the work. And make no mistake: Entrepreneurial creativity is suburban crack.

I know this because as a freelance copywriter and web content consultant, I work with emerging companies all the time. With very few exceptions, either the idea will knock your socks off, or the people will. Everybody is young and brilliant, half are also personable, and maybe 10% are also profitable, at least eventually.

Generations X and Y were raised to value charisma, creativity, and celebrity almost independent of money. We’ve been told by various enlightened gurus over the years that we need to Do What We Love, and that the fortune would follow…if we were willing to learn long, work hard, and fully engage with our dreams…and (cue small print) if we had the right dreams for our skill set…and maybe knew someone with a little spare cash.

We were taught that pursuing a project is just as much about the journey – about changing ourselves, about affecting some type of awareness in the world -as it is about any tangible result. Success and glory, on this type of Homeric quest, may be defined several ways, many of them fairly subjective.

Witness Twitter, whose major success, to my mind, is creating something new and tech-y that teenagers won’t go near, but is instead perfectly engineered to the specific exhibitionism and micro-marketing needs of our generation. Witness, too, the glee of a hi-tech entrepreneur whose app appears on page one of Google after only 23 hours, for *three out of five* key words. Whoops of joy, fist of victory in the air, before he ever sees a blessed CPM penny. And said penny might really be… a penny.

The opposite is also true: Show me a person whose startup has just closed down and I will show you someone dejected – unshaven, in sweatpants or some crazy boxers, and eating leftover rice out of a takeout box for breakfast at 11 am, like after a bad breakup with a lover.

Because we ARE talking about love, not only about business. We are talking about conquering a space, outsmarting a system, navigating a netherworld. We are talking about falling hard for an idea, a vision, and a self-image that relies on our ability to make those real. We are talking about living and breathing something 25 hours a day – filling a need for people who don’t yet know they need what they will soon not be able to live without – and washing it down with little more than coffee. …And then, perhaps, losing it all because someone with some money and a Board in San Francisco or Herzliya or Boston changed her mind.

Nascent companies, then, are mostly about vision, passion, obstinacy, and optimism – of the founders, and, hopefully, of the investors. (And also a little about Attention Deficit Disorder. But that is for another post.) This is part of the reason why Israelis are so good at start ups, because more visionary, obstinate, passionate, and optimistic people are hard to come by. Also obsessive. Again, another post.

There are other, easier to quantify, reasons that Israel is one of the world’s leading hi-tech entrepreneurial clusters, most of them outlined in Senor and Singer’s best selling Start Up Nation.

I loved that book, but what it does not discuss is what happens when passion for innovation grows out of focus, and becomes an end in itself. Here’s what: You spend 100 hours on a project that sits in a little yellow folder in your directory, unsellable and yet still somehow beloved by you, even after you are aware of your own passing lovelorn insanity.

Anyway…Here’s how I ended that kill-fee destined piece:

“….In Israel, the culturally entrenched imperative to innovate – with the triple motive of being a good modern-era Zionist, an industry-changing uber-geek, and the next National Exit Hero – will continue to adapt to human needs, both basic and perceived.

In this often frenetic, uniquely cozy, and highly charged atmosphere, negativity, when it does appear, only seems to attract more positive energy. This is the simple physics of entrepreneurialism, and of Israeli moxy in particular.

Chutzpah 2.0. ”

I still believe it. Mostly.

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  1. 6 Responses to “A Start Up Odyssey”

  2. Still, irrationally, mine too. (Though tying with another.)

    By TKG on Aug 5, 2010

  3. Well, maybe not irrationally.

    By TKG on Aug 5, 2010

  4. Absolutely perfect. I’ve been in the money raising game for the past 15 years and can testify to the weirdness of the industry. Or is it the weirdness of money?

    By Peter on Aug 6, 2010

  5. Unfortunately, the industry attracts the absolute worst scammers and dreamers. The former to steal, the latter too often unprepared and overly optimistic. I’ve been in it for 15 years, as well. Tough industry.

    By Peter on Aug 13, 2010

  6. Peter – I’m still cautiously romantic about the whole thing. I usually love start-ups. But I’m a little bit more sober now with how I approach them.

    By Sara K. Eisen on Aug 13, 2010

  7. Sara, I would urge TOTAL sobriety when dealing with start-ups. Far too often, they are the business version of the neighbourhood kids getting together to put on a musical. Lots of great intent, a mountain of energy … and no director. LOL If I recall the stat correctly, something like 90% of all companies which go public on US stock exchanges are out of business in less than five years. Brutal. Yet those great ideas keep coming up and the enthusiasm drives their author(s) to take that great gamble. Plenty of angel investors who are willing to take the leap, too, hoping that somehow the odds will somehow change. Now and then, they do. And so it goes.

    By Peter on Aug 13, 2010

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