On Friday, September 10, 2010, I biked to work, like I try to do 1-3 times per week. It was a beautiful sunny day with barometer over 20 degrees Celsius. I got on my bike at around 5PM to head to Suite 701 Lounge, the trendy bar and restaurant of Hotel Places d’Armes, one of Montreal’s finest boutique Hotel located in Old Montreal, to attend my good friend and partner Mark MacLeod’s 40th birthday party. It was rush hour and the city was buzzing with activity: people on the streets getting out of work and ready to start the weekend, traffic, bixis, the works. I work downtown which is directly at the base of the Mount Royal and at a higher elevation to Old Montreal. As I was coming down Beaver Hall, a small street that feeds into Square Victoria where The Montreal Stock Exchange, the Hotel W, and the CDP headquarters are located, I started to pick up speed to reach about 35KM/h. About half way through the hill I hit the breaks to prepare to stop at the red light about 50 meters below. To my surprise, although I stopped picking up speed, I wasn’t slowing down. I was on the right side of the street, headed for trouble. My first reaction was to look back to see whether I could cross the street in an attempt to slow down. No car, so I made a tight left turn but still no breaks. I was now less than 25 meters from the red light, on the left side of the street with a car parked right in front of me about 10 meters away. I had two choices: go through the red light and hope for the best or jump off the bike and get hurt.
I ended up positioning the bike so it hit a tree on the sidewalk and not ram into a car. My left hand hit the ground first as I preceded to complete a roll on the sidewalk like one of the stars of Jackass. The forward speed ensured that every piece of my body that touched the ground (hand, wrist, forearm, elbow, and shoulder) lost its pound of flesh, but other than the lost skin, ripped jeans, a few bruises, and a scratched helmet (thank god I was wearing one), I was OK. No long-term damage. The bike was fine. My 17 inches Macbook Pro also survived but not without its bumps and bruises. The frame is tilted a little and I can no longer fit the network cable. I have to realize that for all intents and purposes, the network cable is now obsolete. In addition, I lost about 1.5 inches of screen space on the right side (it’s white) so I can’t see the date or time. My accident turned my 17 inches machine into a 15 inches. We’re now both battle tested. A bystander was nice enough to come check on me while I was putting the computer, cables and business cards, which I later learned went flying as I was rolling, back into my backpack. I then got back on my bike and headed to the party.
Startup Lesson: have your bike checked up
Now you ask, what does this have to do with startups?
My bike is over 10 years old. I have been using it to go to work for 2 years now, using the breaks to slow down that steep hill every time. I never had the bike checked. That’s not responsible. The bike is to me what a product is to a startup. It gets me to places. I should make sure it works before I use it. My bike accident reminds me of startups going to market with products that haven’t gone through a solid QA process. You can ride your bike to work if some of the gears aren’t working right. You may not get there as fast, but it won’t kill you. Similarly, it’s OK to go to market with a beta product not knowing whether customers will like it or not as long as you can iterate fast. You can’t ride a bike downhill with bad breaks and expect it to stop at a red light the same way you can’t go to market with a product that doesn’t work. Your business may not survive it or at a minimum it will experience a major setback. Get your bike fixed before you take it on a wild ride.
When I was 25 meters from the red light and couldn’t stop, I had to make a split second decision. These are the decisions you make with your gut. As Malcolm Gladwell points out in his book “Blink“, these are the decisions you make with your true self because you don’t have time to think about it and get your mind involved. I could have kept going and hope that: 1) my breaks would miraculously slow me down enough to stop at the light; 2) the red light would turn green; 3) no cars would be passing as I would be crossing; or 4) I would weave through traffic unscathed. The odds of any of these scenarios happening was probably around 20%. Not good odds, but much better than any new startup’s chance to be successful. The alternative was to jump to certain minor injury, pain and potential ridicule but avoid any chance of death or major injury. You can argue that anyone with half a brain would have made the same decision as I did because of the consequences of being wrong in this case: serious injury or death. That being said, I know people who would have taken their chances to avoid the guaranteed consequences of jumping (minor bodily harm and ridicule) or just to prove themselves they could do it. Such is the world we live in.
Startup Lesson: What would you do?
There are many parallels to be made between this situation and the startup world. Entrepreneurs have to take risks and make risky decisions on a regular basis. That’s part of the deal. No risks, no rewards. You can argue that risk levels have been considerably reduced these past few years, especially for engineer founders, now that startups can be built from scratch with time and sweat, but they’re still there. Some of the risks and decisions include failure, bringing in a partner, adding key members to the team, adding investors to the capital of the company, product, getting rejected by customers, not meeting customer expectations, bruised reputation, raising too much money, raising too little money, competition, personal life struggles, health problems, etc.
One could argue that the guy who takes his chances and stays on the bike is more likely to swing for the fences, regardless of the situation. This could mean: raise as much money as is available on the best possible terms with a complete disregard to who the investors are, take all the business you can win even if don’t know if you’ll be able to deliver the goods yet, stretching the truth to the limits of the acceptable to convince an employee, investor, customer or partner to do business with you, hire people with strong resumes with little background checks but get rid of the non-performers as quickly, drive the business towards a wall hoping that the wall will blow up before you hit it (in other words, expect your investors to write a check when you run out of money), make as much noise as possible and talk about yourself a lot, release and deploy your product in customer environments before its ready, etc.
On the other hand, the entrepreneur who decides to jump off the bike is more likely to play it safe and take the longer road to success. That means spending quality time with investors, partners and potential employees before committing to them, to make sure there’s a fit, raising just enough money to execute a predetermined plan and validate preset assumptions to keep your options open, working on plan B and C a few months before running out of money, always under promise and over deliver with investors, employees, customers and partners, QA your products before releasing them, only take on customers whose expectations you know you can meet, stay under the radar until you’re ready and let others do the talking, etc.
There are many types of entrepreneurs and many of them can’t be put in the two categories above, but I’ve met and worked with a few that do. I’ve experienced success and failures with both types in the past. I currently have both in my portfolio. The key to any relationship is to know who you’re dealing with, what their value set is and accept the individuals as they are, helping them focus on their strengths and compensating for their weaknesses. As for me, I’m glad I jumped and hope that my gut will lead me in the same direction next time.
What about you? What would you have done?