If only 1 in 10 startups makes it, then 9 out of every 10 founders you meet are probably failing. The visceral toll of this intimate downfall is rarely discussed, with most of our attention focused on the success stories, and the repeat entrepreneurs who have the safety net to bounce back. I meet with Pascal Finette in the shadow of tech past, to discuss the psychology of being a founder, and what you can do to stay sane in the whirlwinds. (Warning: some cursing in the video & transcript below.)
Tim Anglade, Executive in Residence at Scale Venture Partners: Have you guys always been like in here, in the campus? Or did NASA open this recently?
Pascal Finette, VP SU Labs at Singularity University, and author of The Heretic: Yeah, yeah, yeah, so this was formerly a Navy air base. So during the Cold War, particularly, they flew the P3 to hunt for submarines, 50,000 people at one point. And then after the Cold War NASA basically took this over and then turned this into a NASA research park. So all the infrastructure is old NASA infrastructure. It’s like really shitty infrastructure, as you can see. It’s super fun to be here but the infrastructure’s shit. We’ve got about 70 startups here. They’re all in the space industry, so everything from like nanosats, cubesats. Lunar Express, the guys who want to go back to the moon are here. And then lastly you’ve got two universities, us and Carnegie Mellon. We’ve been here, basically, since we were around, since 2008.
Tim: Yeah, and it’s been pretty nice. And NASA still has some operations somewhere on the base, right? Not completely, completely shut down.
Pascal: Well NASA is, yeah. So the Navy is out here but NASA Ames over there is still like 3,000 people or so. And is one of the main research sites for them.
Tim: It’s always like a big sight, you know. Whenever, like the first time I think I was on the 101 and whenever I bring people here it’s like, “What is this thing?” You know, like in real life there was actual hardware stuff that you used to have.
Pascal: The best thing is that the building you see over there with the blue, like structure. That building is the largest wind tunnel in the world. So now you’ve got like a data point you can give people, which is hilarious. So apparently they don’t use this like 30 years due to, like you use computers today, right. But apparently when they switched this on, you know, back in the day you had brown-outs in Mountain View. Because it takes up so much energy. It likes sucks every bit of energy out of Mountain View basically.
Tim: It’s very funny to think about like, yeah, when doing high tech and doing, you know, startups was kind of like a risk for your life maybe, or for like your livelihood. Or people around you, so. Now it kind of feels very like you’re behind a computer, you’re typing on the keyboard, you know, you’re shaking hands on Sand Hill Road. It seems like it’s changed quite a bit, right. It’s not as adventurous as it used to be.
Pascal: Well I wasn’t around back then, so I don’t know. I don’t know, like I think one thing which you can probably be moaned a little bit is like we are definitely more removed from the actual outcome of our works, right? Like back in the day, I mean even when I, I think we had pleasure of going to park and SRI, and so on and see the old stuff, and back in the day we were like really involved. Like you build a computer, like it was this big thing! Right, now like, my server infrastructure is on freakin’ Amazon Cloud. I don’t even know how the server looks like. Right, like even 10, 15 years ago when I built my companies we built, we bought servers, right? I still at least knew what the box looks like.
Tim: Now you don’t even honestly, like what your customers look like. Or where they are. You should, but you know, you don’t necessarily meet all of them.
Pascal: They’re numbers right? Now they’re like numbers in your Google analytics, right? They’re not actually people anymore.
Tim: I think it works the other way too with like, you published this really great blog and now a book too like the Heretic, right? About founders, and I think you called in daily therapeutics for founders, and I think it works the same way too. The same way like, when you’re building a start up you don’t necessarily see your customers, or see your partner, or see kind of what that’s like. I feel like people have this perception of founders you know from magazine or from TechCrunch of like living the life, and like posting party stories on Instagram, and stuff like that but it’s not necessarily all that on the inside. Especially for people where they are not yet successful, or maybe will never be successful. So on one end you have this kind of public image of famous successful founders, you know the Zuckerberg’s are one of this world, and they’re doing great. I don’t think they need much help at this point. At the other end I think that this really dark sometimes kind of complicated reality of being a founder and failing. So how do you reconcile that? You know, why do you think there’s this need for daily therapeutics for founders? You know, why do you think it’s hard to be a founder in some ways?
Pascal: Well I think there’s a bunch of things, right. First of all is, I think it’s super, super lonely to be a founder. Mostly because we live in a culture which makes us say everything is awesome. I recently met a friend of mine who literally couldn’t make payroll. Like I knew that he couldn’t make payroll, right? And he was at a party, and I see him interact at the party and like people ask him, “How’s your business going?” He’s like, “It’s awesome! “It’s super cool!” Right and you’re like, I know that you’re crying yourself into sleep because he can’t make payroll, right. Granted like this what is expected of you as a founder. Like you can’t go out and say everything is shit, because then like nobody invest in you, you don’t get partners, et cetera. So I think it’s paramount actually as founder, it’s really paramount to surround yourself with people whom you can be real. So I encourage founders to find other founders who are going through the same shit, non-competing right? So you can be totally honest, save space, and really be real. It’s a little bit like, anonymous alcoholics, right? Like you need to have this space where you can be okay with this. And then also like, do self care, right? Like really figure out what you as a person need to like make that good. And it’s hard, it’s really freakin’ hard, and at the same time it’s the best thing you can do, right? It’s like…
Tim: Right. Yeah founder burnout I think is something that’s kind of a very real thing. You know you always hear about employee burnout or all that. I think founder burnout is interesting cuz you can’t honestly like quit, because you can’t really quit as a founder, but you know your stress and your kind of fatigue shows up in other ways in kind of your work and your company direction, and I think those flame outs are really hard, harder right to kind of talk about openly because, yeah you can’t turn to investors, you can’t turn to employees, you can’t even maybe turn to your co-founder about this and you really kind of have a different support network. So it can be hard, so what are some of the things that you’ve seen that kind of comes up pretty often that people kind of really related to on your blog or talked to about in term of, what are the biggest kind of psychological thing that you face as a founder?
Pascal: Right, so I think that most important and most interesting to me is talking about the negative sides and how you deal with that, right. So anything from like, I needed to fire like this person, my co-founder relationship like is deteriorating, I can’t raise money, right? I don’t need to write yet another blog on like how do you pitch UVC. You know how do you write a business plan or whatever. They exist, they great, they don’t need me. I think what is missing somewhat, apparently, like because I found a really interesting audience there and people really connect with that is the questions of like how do we deal with the hard things, right? Like as I mentioned, like I need to fire someone. That’s probably the hardest thing you can do because that person came to you because you sold them a vision and suddenly that doesn’t work anymore, right. So I think it’s really about, like, figuring out like how do you find answers to the negatives you experience as an entrepreneur, and at the same time keeping up the spirit and being like super anchored and like what you’re doing is important, and it’s awesome, and it’s like there’s so much beautiful things about being a founder, right? Dave Pink who wrote Drive, right? He says like, happiness is when you have autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Right, like as a founder assuming you’re doing something you actually really believe in. Granted some founders don’t, and that’s a real problem. So you have purpose, you have autonomy, the ultimate autonomy, right? And hopefully you know the shit you’re doing so it’s mastery, right. So you actually have everything which you need to like be highly motivated.
Tim: Right, it should be right? But I find that some people, like don’t actually want that autonomy for example, or realize they don’t really have the mastery. And you have those weird things, you know from impostor’s syndrome I guess To just people kind of feeling like, you know, they need to hire somebody else
Pascal: Right. to kind of run the company that they created, because they don’t want to be doing that. They just don’t want the responsibility. They might even be good at it, they kind of just don’t want that pressure. That’s very funny how you kind of see a lot of people that kind of discover them self. I used think it was like, “oh just you know, “it’s all those YC founder, they’re like 15 you know. “what do they know about themselves.” But you know. You see that even people who are founding companies at 35, 40 and they’re like, “oh wow”, you know, “I didn’t know that about myself. “I didn’t know that about this.” A startup does push you into at least a confine of like how much do you believe in yourself? Right, it’s kind of a bit of, you know, almost kind of a religious moment, right? It’s like that faith in yourself that you have to question maybe at some point. But also kind of keep strong to keep going. So, you know, what are some of the things that you’ve seen kind of helps? You know we’ve mentioned, you know, having a network, having people you can relate to, kind of identifying the three things, and kind of really stay in touch with them. But what else do you think helps kind of founders navigate what is almost certain, right, for anybody starting a company today, gonna be like a very, you know a road that has it’s complex moments.
Tim: Yeah, I think honestly the most important thing is that you need to do something which is inline with your purpose. Like you need to figure out the company you started, the business you’re running, it needs to be aligned with what you want to do. Right because, you know, take me, like I founded my first company out of college, and like granted I wanted to make the quick million, Like I was intoxicated during the first .com boom. I was intoxicated by the successes I’ve seen around me, and media portrayed them, right? I built a business which I actually didn’t care all that much about. Like as a, I cared about building the business but the core of the business I was like “I don’t care.” As the media is saying, it’s like whatever. When the going got tough, and I can pretty much guarantee you it will get tough, right. Because every start up goes through it’s like hard pieces. I just quit, I couldn’t do it. Like it was like I got depressed, and I was like could not do this company and the basic company sunk. I think if you have conviction about the thing you are doing if you’re solving a problem you’re really deeply passionate about and, or you’re so deeply passionate about building the company for a reason, like if there’s purpose, you’re actually good, and you can actually work through all these, like the hard ship.
Pascal: I see a lot of kind of founders kind of do that, where, you know, it’s not necessarily kind of the core thing about the company that they really, really believe in, but for example they really believe in having a diverse workforce, and that’s something that kind of keeps them going and keeps them motivated. Or they believe in having like a remote company, and again that’s something that makes them kind of keep going and getting to work every day. Because even if your product isn’t good or whatever, you still have that to kind of carry you. It’s interesting, you know, one thing I think I’ve seen in conversation come up quite a bit is also, you know, that a key to succeeding for founders is like not asking yourself too many questions and kind of powering through. Do you feel like that’s something also that’s true? Like we talk about all these things introspecting yourself and kind of idling that and having that support but how much do you feel like you know the trick is just kind of like not letting those things kind of get to you at all.
Tim: Well I think there’s a difference between asking really good and deep questions to unearth the truth and coming to the point where I’ve made a decision then not question that decision anymore. Right. Like I think it’s really important, once you make a decision, you’re not like going back on your decision, that is what kills people, like typically.
Pascal: That over analyzing. And over thinking about it. Yeah I think that makes a ton of sense. I hope, kind of people in general think about that more. Employees about their founders, investors about their founders, founders about themselves. How difficult it can be internally and how much shit they kind of have to think about. Like taking care of themselves, you know, while they’re taking care of their company and taking care of others. Yeah, thank you so much. It was really good to talk about it.