You’ve awoken from a dream. It all seemed so real – the joy, the success, the elation of accomplishment. They’d strewn your name in ribbons across the sky, carved multi-colored tattoos in your image, renamed August in your honor, soothed infants by cooing your name.
It all seemed so real. So very, very real.
You saw a different future: the future as it might be, the future that only you can create. A future that hides in the holds of your head, shines like the bright sun reflected on glass, peeks from behind your pupils. It is the future-dream that encompasses everything you ever wanted to do, everything that is inside of you, and everything that you will ever be.
And it was beautiful.
You also dreamed of fear: fear like a serpent, clinging around your spine, twisting at the desiccated emptiness inside of you; the blood gurgling in your ears, every pulse a footfall closer to your finish; a fear that doesn’t so much make it impossible to open or close your eyes, as it sucks them shut from the inside.
Everything you ever had – and the only thing you’ve ever truly known is you – and you’ve wasted it all. Spent it on a spam hallucination of grandeur; lost it to the false joker god of ambition; pissed it away on the purchase of a totem of pride.
You were tiny, alone, and afraid.
And you loved it.
You know now that the dream requires the fear; that the victory is compiled from the defeat; that the redemption in fact comes from the failure.
You know that the dream is beautiful and you want it more than anything that has ever been born or bred or believed inside of you.
Your goal is to achieve that dream.
If you are an entrepreneur; if you see futures; if creation is your calling…
Your goal is to achieve that dream.
You won’t be alone.
Your enemies will be there — they are time, money, competitors and apathy.
Your friend is you.
The fight is lopsided, unfair, cruel, but you keep thinking back to that beautiful dream……
To dream, you’ll need to understand what you must do. Yes, of course, you must do “everything”, but I would make a distinction between the Tasks and the Tack — the actions required for success on the one hand, and the destination of your dream on the other. They seem similar in the roasting forge of Start-Up Land, but separating the two and understanding their differences is important to your success.
The Tasks are all the little bits of the business that are required for its development, but for which you lack the proper staff, time, money or capabilities.
Your Tack is your direction. Based on your understanding and comprehension of the marketplace, where will you go?
Tasks are comprised of the basics — marketing, operations, sales, technology, maintenance, design, customer service.
You will only have you at the beginning to handle all of these things. (Over time, your business will grow to be dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of employees, and you’ll marvel at how such small functions blossom into full-time staffs — International tax compliance auditor? Real estate lease manager?)
But, at the beginning, there’s only you. And you’ll be utterly inept, incompetent, insecure, and incapable of doing any of these things. You may think that your prior work experience has prepared you, but it hasn’t. Unless you’ve dreamed before, anything you’ve ever done as an employee, a student, a partner, a consultant, a leader, a soldier, is not like this at all.
And that’s because there’s nobody there to tell you. Nobody to tell you how to do it, whether you should do it, if doing it is important. And even when you know you should do it, there’s nobody there to tell you in what order, to what degree, and with what intensity.
Because of this, dreamers improvise. When it comes to Tasks, you can, should and must fake it. You don’t have the cash, clout, credibility, or consultants to help you. Zeal must see you through.
You’ll need to design your own site (worked for Google!), write your own copy, craft your own marketing, do your own sales calls, answer your own phones. Because it is just you at the beginning, it is up to you to do all of the Tasks on your own.
Now… when you have some success, you’ll get to hire people who can alleviate your company of your incompetence. In one area anyway. And now that that function is temporarily better-staffed, you’ll need to go be incompetent in another spot. Not because you’re useless, but precisely because your usefulness is in the place that the company doesn’t have resources yet, the place where a dreamer can be as valuable as an expert because the dream hasn’t been invented yet.
Tasks are required, incremental to your success, and learned.
Tack, by contrast, is your direction; the vision that you have for your start-up.
It must not be faked, it can not be outsourced, and it must be earned.
Given that there are 6 million businesses in the United States successful enough to have employees, you can not simply show up on the scene and hope to make stuff up. You need to have a reason to exist, a reason why you’re doing something those other 6 million businesses can’t. In the case of Tack, desire isn’t enough, there needs to be a compelling, well thought-out purpose to your dream.
So Tack is the answer to the question “what is your unfair advantage?”
For a small retailer, it might be “there’s not been this level of selection and service before.”
For a franchisee, it might be “there’s never been a Pinkberry on this corner.”
For a services firm, it might be “we apply our expertise to the burgeoning industry of _____”
And for your internet start-up, your answer is most likely going to be “our customers don’t realize they have this problem yet, and we will surprise them with what our solution can do.”
So Tack is your unfair advantage, it’s your vig, your vision. Entrepreneurship is not about taking risks, it’s about understanding them better than anyone else and only choosing the most rewarding ones — it’s risk arbitrage.
Your Tack is your dream, and it can only come from inside of you. And just like your dreams at night, your dreams during the daytime come from who you have made yourself to be. The hours and the days and the years on the hard bench, stuck in the middle seat, slouched over yet another dinner delivered to your desk while you’re listening, listening, listening to customers and suppliers and the marketplace.
To dream, you need to know the marketplace like you know a lover, a spouse, a child, compelled by a deep hunger to know its ways; learning its expressions and knowing when they’re saying one thing but meaning another. Watching it while it sleeps, understanding that when the market rustles, you’ll know in your heart of hearts that it wants more.
And you probably have something else inside of you, too.
In my East Asian trading days, I learned a saying that: “In Japan, everybody wants to be the tail of the dragon; in Taiwan, everybody wants to be the head of the chicken.” It’s one of the few cross-cultural comparisons I’ve ever heard quoted by both sides approvingly, with an air of obvious superiority.
So there’s something inside of you that wants to be the head of the chicken. You’d probably like to make it a big huge chicken. (Did you know that chickens are actually dinosaurs that made it through the extinction? Find your niche, baby!)
That’s good, poultry ambition is good. You’re going to need it.
As for me, I, too, had the chicken itch.
I’d joined HotJobs.com in April 2000 and helped sell the company to Yahoo! in February 2002 for $436 mm. And Yahoo!, being three thousand employees at the time, was too large a dragon for me.
So I tried, and failed, at ventures… nothing ventures with nothing gained from them.
I tried to raise money to buy Dice.com, I consulted and tried to raise money for an hourly job board start-up (damn clever idea — apply by phone!), I tried to find a way, an angle, into any of the internet, or recruitment, or internet recruitment businesses that I found fascinating, compelling, haunting.
Now I didn’t set out to go two years without a paycheck, to find myself cashing my last unemployment check, to be feeding myself by day-trading options (month-trading, really, but that’s another post), to have ice cubes of fear scratching through my veins as I set out for my b-school’s fifth reunion unemployed, unpaid, undone.
I didn’t set out to… but there I was.
And I guess the advice I’d have for dreamers is that regardless of your situation, if you intend to dream, there is one thing you must invest in.
(Or Venti Lattes, or green tea, or whatever your social drink just so happens to be.)
I was fortunate enough to have met three of the best dreamers I’ve met in my life at HotJobs, and talking about dreaming with them over Guinness was the heady stuff that keeps you believing that it is not a setting sun, it’s just rising someplace else in the world right now, and your turn is coming.
And, eventually, after a series of bad ideas, after a progression of failures, after watching the marketplace while it slept and guessing, guessing at what it meant, I hit upon a good idea. Perhaps a great one. Perhaps something that could help the customers who didn’t know they needed it yet. Maybe something that could change the world.
I was alive, incandescent, glowing.
And I was incompetent at everything I needed to be successful.
But I wasn’t going to be stopped.
I bought FrontPage from Microsoft, Dreamweaver for Dummies, and a slice of a shared sever in Jersey; anything, anything, so I could try to get “it” live: a site, a demo… hell, even brochureware would’ve been a good start.
But it was useless and impossible. FrontPage wouldn’t make any pages, front or back, Dreamweaver…. didn’t, and a slice of Jersey isn’t enough to build a business on unless you’re a reality TV show. I grew frustrated. This stuff wasn’t designed to help entrepreneurs like me get off the ground, it was window dressing, it was candy, it was fluff.
So I went out and I talked to a bunch of developers.
I told them about the dream, I told them about the future, I told them about the celebrations and songs and victories and beauty that were just over the hill. I told them everything — truthfully, urgently, desperately.
But they didn’t understand the dream.
They thought about it a few days and came back to tell me it would take three months and $30,000 to build a prototype.
And I didn’t want to wait, and I didn’t want to pay, and I didn’t know how the dream was going to be helped by a “prototype” (which, I suspected, when loosely translated from the technical jargon meant “hey, it worked during the meeting!”)
But the dream had burned itself to the inside of my eyeballs.
So I went to the Barnes & Noble in Union Square, Manhattan and bought the books that would teach me to dream in code. I bought the whole collection: MySQL Cookbook, PHP Functions, MySQL and PHP for Dummies, and what turned out to be my core curriculum and my saving grace: “MySQL and PHP for Web Development” (you can’t hear it right now, but every time I read those words angels in heaven sing to me.)
Now let me tell you what those days and nights were like.
With a beach chair I’d bought at JazzFest, I’d prop the book on one knee and the keyboard on the other in my East Village apartment. There was no night, there was no day. I’d fall asleep reading in Tompkins Square Park, gulp down functions over soba at Sobaya, wander 3 a.m. streets to clear my head and go back for more.
Need to figure out how to build an email system? That’s Chapter 29!
Code not doing what you need it to do? Google the text of the error message!
Unsure if the public site works? Call the cousins!
Three weeks of fever, fever, fever, and I’d taught myself to code, wrought my dream from bits, and pushed the button to make the site live.
Now when you take a look at the site I built in those three weeks of August 2003, you will find it easy to believe that I did it all by myself.
But the important thing was that it was live! and once something is live it can get better.
And living is the second most important thing for your dream, your Tack, your vision.
Living can only occur when all of the Tasks — those discrete bits of work that need to be done so that you start-up can, well, start — are brought into being in the early days with nothing but your spirit and zeal and energy and Yankee ingenuity and Zen intensity and passion and desire. Nothing will conquer the Tasks like you on fire.
But the most important thing for your Tack is that it be True.
That it will mean something to the customers, that it will create the future you dreamed of, that it will make the days brighter, cars faster, TVs bigger, friendships better, abs tighter, and games more addictive than those damn Angry Birds and ‘Villes.
That it will change the world.
If your dream is a good one, if you’ve done the night-watching of your marketplace, if you’ve listened correctly, if you have destiny, if you’ve earned your place at the customer’s table, then the heaven-singing angels and the check-signing angels will be your boon companions.
And you will find your way through.
If… your dream is a good one.