Blog Post

Dead Man Dancing

The founder’s reprieve between funding rounds never feels long enough. Way too often, you find yourself in a room asking your investors to pull out their checkbooks again. Recently, one of my investors tried to cheer me up: “Listen Matt, you aren’t a real entrepreneur if you haven’t run out of money a few times.”

I wish the mood was always so jovial. But I was not having a good week. This round of funding was going to be different, because this time I had no more money of my own to put into the company. That makes a big difference to certain investors. I didn’t know if my angels would be willing to put up more cash, and I had no where else to go.

The bank owned my home (I had already mortgaged it twice), my credit card debt was building up (again), and the company’s commercial bank balance dwindled dangerously close to zero. I had no idea how I was going to cover the month’s payroll and people won’t work long for companies that can’t pay them. I had put everything I owned into this ship and it was in danger of sinking.

So what did I do? I went salsa dancing.

It just so happened that this same week a close friend had asked me to go out to a local salsa club with him. It was important: He was supposed to meet a woman there, and he needed his wingman. In the past I would have shut down my social life to focus on the company crisis, operating in panic mode for days on end until I came up with a solution. This time was different: I had been in and out of the fire enough to know that I could go out for the night to try to relax for a few hours and the sky wouldn’t fall.

As we walked to the club, I outlined the current state of affairs at my company, and explained how dire the scenario had become. Throughout the night, he asked me repeatedly, “Seriously, Matt. What are you going to do?” Here was a guy with a stable 401k plan, who shreds his mail and takes long, careful periods of planning before making any major life decisions. When it comes to risk taking we are polar opposites. He looked at me in the way that one might look at a man whose fate is sealed. You could see it in his concerned—and confused—eyes: “I’m looking at a dead man. A dead man who has gone out dancing.”

I actually found myself consoling him that I would be okay. I told him the truth: I was scared shitless and really couldn’t see through to the other side of this one, but I knew I’d pull through. I knew this because I had done it before and there simple wasn’t any other option: I wasn’t going to die or starve to death, so there could be worse problems to face. I raised my drink to my friend.

“I will tell you this: If you want to be an entrepreneur, you better learn to be able to sleep in the fire. I’ll take that along with the danger of failure over going each day to a job with no reward any day, no matter how safe that job might be.”

I’m not advocating recklessness here, or attempting to romanticize the dangers of risk-taking; businesses are not built on irresponsible behavior. That is often how they are lost. Sure, I decided to go out dancing, but this doesn’t mean my problems weren’t in the back of my mind all night, because they certainly were. My business and my home were at risk – but large problems like these follow an entrepreneur everywhere they go.

What every founder needs to grasp is that there is a line between attentive concern and freaking out. There is a balance between letting a danger move you to aggressive problem solving, while not letting the stress break you down. I went home after an enjoyable night at the club, picked up my pen and put in some serious time cranking out as many creative solutions as I could muster. Then I turned off the light, crawled into bed, and fell asleep. I woke up the next day rested and ready to drive forward.

I survived. My investors didn’t give in to my funding pleas right away. They sent me away a few times and held my feet to the fire as the clock wound down. I remained calm, listened to their requests, and managed to work with them without “going Chernobyl” in the boardroom. Through remaining calm I came out the other side with signed checks and my company in tact.

The lesson here is that an entrepreneur has to learn to be able to live with fear and uncertainty – learn how to sleep in the midst of a fire. If we can’t handle the stress of high pressure situations with calm, our companies don’t have a chance.

Oh, I almost forgot: the girl my friend was supposed to meet that night eventually did show up… with her husband. Had I stayed home wringing my hands over my funding crisis, I would have missed the chance to razz him about it these last six months. (A nice reprieve if ever I had one!) So remember this: Some things in life are worth taking a break for.

8 Responses to “Dead Man Dancing”

  1. nickbuick

    No wonder you guys are stressed so much – you’re all running on borrowed money. Companies are supposed to make money – not borrow it. Don’t you put together some sort of financial plan before you start these ventures to ensure you can become profitable and don’t run out of money?}

  2. elliot

    No entrepreneur enjoys this sort of heart-ache, though it can be great for building character and testing personal will. Not over-romanticizing risk is key, imho. Especially after it’s over (post acquisition, etc.).

    That said, risk and heart-ache are pretty much an integral part of the process (unless you’re really lucky or have absolutely excellent timing).}

  3. cwodtke

    Thank you for this– at least I know I am not alone. I have had days when I thought I’d have to shut down the company and two hours later got news that gave me hope. Anyhow, you gave new meaning to the phrase “shut up and dance”!}

  4. 24pfilms

    Yes, having your feet in the fire, and trying to remain calm and focused is a challenge…on top of getting the best performance out of your team…to meet the next milestone.
    After having put insane hours into our startup I now take the time out of my 18 hr work day to do something different and mentally distracting. I kayak, or go for a long bike ride, I find these sojourns really allow me to return to the task/challenge with a renewed outlook and optimism.}

  5. I cannot even count the number of times that I’ve heard news so bad that I’ve seen all my dreams shatter in front of my eyes… just when I think all hope is lost, something else comes along that provides hope again… I’ve come to realize that you have to be like a “speed bag”… the faster you get hit, the faster you have to learn to come back.}

  6. The one thing that pisses me off most about taking on a startup business is the fear. It can so quickly and easily consume you. The one aspect I struggle with daily is my inability to mentally focus on my family. Specifically, my son.

    I have managed to keep time with him on a daily basis but I mentally feel like I am neglecting him. He is right there in front of me. Asking me to put on his other Superman cape and fly around the house. I do it, but have this nagging itinerary running through my head. What should I work on next? Make sure and call that credit card company! Don’t forget to apply the next scripting update.

    It all comes down to my abilities in dealing with fear. Will it consume me today? Can I focus on this playtime with my son? I do not have the answer for that right now but know I cannot let the fear take over and replace the things I hold most dear.

    Did I do the right thing? That question is not valid anymore. It has changed to , will I do the right thing and keep my fears at bay while pressing forward.

    Fighting evil with my 2 year old has never been so real.}

  7. sbyrnes

    So true. The most effective entrepreneurs are the ones who know not to get too heady during the up times and not to let themselves sink too low when things get bad. It’s surprising how poorly prepared a lot of people are for this roller coaster.

    It also helps to have a healthy appreciation for life outside of work. Hobbies, sports and art can be an invaluable outlet when things get tough.}