As co-founder and CTO of my last startup, Mu Dynamics, I had one hell of a ride for 7 years culminating in an acquisition. We built amazing things there, hired A+ people, survived through the worst in 2008, lived to tell the tale and in all aspects, it felt like an ultra marathon. There were highs and lows, walls to break down, blisters, scars and injuries, appendages falling off mid-run and a wave of relief as we crossed the finish line. Earlier this week, I registered to run my first ultra marathon in June this year, the Big Basin 50km and I was startled to see the connection between distance running and starting a company. I am the CEO of this new startup called my runner’s body. I don’t think my body has a proven business model yet, but that’s my job to figure it out.
I started my company with my co-founder Ajit, just as suddenly as I took up running. There was this thing in my gut that nudged me to jump first and figure things out later. All we had was an inkling of an idea and the strong urge to run free. No real sense of the market we were addressing nor how long it was going to take us to finish the run. Maybe that was a bad thing, I dunno, but things seemed to have worked out one way or the other. In 6 months we had built our first product. About the same time it took me to run the San Francisco Half Marathon after I started running. The euphoria that we were on to something was undeniable. Almost to the point of cockiness. If we can run a half marathon, how hard can a full really be? Just because we built a product, the market must exist, right? Right?
Just because we built a product, the market must exist, right?
The Wall, Pit and Abyss
Then came the ankle pain, customer issues, sore calves, support calls, IT band syndrome, hiring and scaling, tempo runs, figuring out the market, wondering why we got shin splints and why didn’t anyone tell us about these before we started? R.I.C.E. helped, but startups don’t have foam rollers. This was a persistent hunt, the one where you run a kudu down to exhaustion or you die in the process. Every injury felt different, unique just like our customers. Why can’t the IT band get along with my ankles? Can someone please spot a pattern here to identify a replicable sales model? Why does trail running have to be so different from asphalt? And what do you mean this is looking like a DNF (that’s Did Not Finish, for you non-runners). I can’t help but share this amazing slide by Scott Dunlap, an ultra runner with an awesome blog and you can see the connection I’m talking about. We were approaching the Wall and it was time to dig deep.
Layoff to founders is worse than falling toenails for distance runners.
If there’s such thing as a Wall in startup, we hit it and we hit it so hard that it felt more like an Abyss. Layoffs to founders is worse than falling toe nails for distance runners. They hurt and makes you wonder about 42, in all of it’s goriness. As for my own ultra running, I’m just approaching the wall. My last run this past week was 18 miles with a 3,000 ft elevation gain doing hill repeats on Wildcat Loop. I could feel the wall at the end of three hours of running. But unlike a startup, I’m going to linger here for just a little longer, getting to know this beast. Over the next few months, I’m going to have to find out the right mix of Cliff bars, bean burritos, electrolytes and pinole to see if that series B can help me over the wall.
The Lean Startup
I’ve lost 20 pounds over the last year and kept it off and I’m sure this is going to make a difference. Timex HRM and Strava are now my Pivotal Tracker. Articles about electrolytes, sodium and potassium levels, duct tape for blisters are my new user manuals. Yes, duct tape. Apparently they are BFF for distance runners. The big difference though, is that startups have to cross the chasm once (one hopes). But you have to cross the wall on every single distance run, because nature’s a sadist. I never had Biology lessons in high school (long story), but I know my lower limb anatomy like the back of an EC2 load balancer. As a CEO, it’s now my job to make sure all 6 cylinders are firing to get to the finish line. That my runner’s body only has 3 cylinders was just an oversight on someone’s part before I took up the job. But now that I have the reins, it doesn’t matter. I don’t have a retention package nor golden handcuffs when I get to the finish line – just a brief encounter with the flow, the highest point of euphoria. And that’s got to be worth everything.
Because, I’m the CEO of my new startup. My runner’s body. Here’s to a great finish!