If entrepreneurs played the odds, there would be no startups

Last night at the Atlanta Tech Village’s Holiday Showcase, I spoke with a young entrepreneur who had decided to wind down his startup. He had a good idea, raised some funds, won a startup contest, but it didn’t work. He had gone through his savings, borrowed some more and was now at a point at which he simply could not continue financially. It happens. In fact, it happens most of the time.  85% of all small businesses fail. Guess what a startup is? A small business. The odds are against you.

Earlier this week, a post by Big Nerd Ranch‘s founder, Aaron Hillegass, sparked some outrage by basically saying that the odds are against you so you shouldn’t start a business.  The blog, entitled “Don’t start a company, kid“, makes many very valid points, particularly why you should not start a company based on the idea of “Instagram for pets”, but ultimately ends with “go work for that company (that has lots of cash). Don’t start your own.”

Having worked for 2 startups, and started 5 more, I simply cannot imagine anything worse for me. Yuk.

Rob Forman, one of the brilliant guys at SalesLoft, responded appropriately, with this post, Do start a company, Son. I agree with Rob, and completely disagree with Aaron’s main point.  You want to start a company? DO IT.  Yes, the odds are against you. You will be wrong. You will fail. You will guess. You will be broke at some point.  You will make stupid decisions. The odds really are against you, but you can succeed, and you just might, and this I promise you: you will regret not doing it when you had the opportunity far more than you’ll regret failing. Do it. Start your company. Dream big. Go for it. Do not listen to the nay sayers!

Speaking of nay sayers, and, since we’re in the Christmas season, I’ll share another very good tale of someone going against the odds and succeeding when nobody else thought he could succeed. Let’s go back in time to the American Revolutionary War.

In 1775, Boston was under the yoke of the British military.  The British fleet and her powerful guns dominated the harbor, enforcing military rule over the town. Washington’s forces commanded the high ground around the city, but the Americans had too few cannon and insufficient firepower to break the British stranglehold and force the invaders from the city.

Earlier that year, Ethan Allen’s “Green Mountain Boys” seized the British fort at Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain, capturing about 59 artillery pieces.  It was the American’s first victory of the Revolutionary War.

Henry Knox, age 25 and commander of Washington’s artillery heard the report of the seized cannon and was suddenly inspired with the true “Spirit of Christmas.”   Colonel Knox previously wanted to present the assorted cannon as a gift to General Washington.

The Naysayers 
Washington’s “more experienced advisers,” a/k/a “the realists,” noting that “there is no Santa Claus,” exhibited a spirit of passivity and counseled General Washington to wait to bring the cannon after the completion of Interstate 90 to Albany.  These 18th century Scrooges pointed out that Ft. Ticonderoga was 300 miles away; they would have to cross a 30-mile lake, there and back, and the cannon, mortars, and howitzers, weighed in at about 60 tons.  They also mentioned that it was winter and it tended to snow in New England around that time of year.  In a word – the task was hopeless.

Hope Springs Eternal
Rejecting the nay sayers and the temptation not to take the initiative, and seeing the bigger picture, Colonel Knox doggedly set out for Ft. Ticonderoga.  Upon arrival at the fort, Knox hastily organized a large group of men and a flotilla of flat bottom boats to cross Lake Champlain.  The boats had to be loaded and across the lake before the lake froze. On December 9, 1775, after loading the guns and barrels of ammunition onto the boats, the expedition set out.  Facing an icy gale, with temperatures hovering in the teens, the freezing men reached the end of the lake just before it froze over.

Knox now had to move the precious cargo overland.  He and his men built 42 sleds, each of which had to carry over 5000 pounds.  Two oxen would pull each sled.  The sleds were built and the men were ready to move but the weather again threatened to stall the expedition.  The winter snow had not come and the sleds were useless.  Knox and his men waited.

White Christmas
On Christmas morning 1775, in answer to many prayers, Knox awakened to several feet of new snow.  The sleds could finally move and Knox and his men pushed on.  The journey was epic. Colonel Knox and the cannon arrived in Springfield, Massachusetts 56 days after setting out against all odds – a welcome present for General Washington.

The British Look Up
On March 2, 1776, the Continental Army began firing the guns brought from Fort Ticonderoga on the British forces in Boston.  On March 4th, the Continentals pushed the largest cannons up Dorchester Heights overlooking the city.  The next morning, General Howe, the British commander, looked up at Dorchester Heights and said, “The rebels did more in one night than my whole army would have done in a month.”  Howe loaded up his ships and sailed away to Nova Scotia.  Boston had been liberated.

Merry Christmas! Now go start your business.

What do you think about that?