Starting a new business uncorks strong emotions that have typicallybuilt up over years or decades. Like the winding of an inner coil, anaspiring entrepreneur’s early experiences pack potential energyaround an embryonic idea and lay the foundation for future startupefforts. Early jobs, both good and bad, further seed entrepreneurialambitions and ideas. All of this builds toward the day when a founderreaches his or her point of no return, where commitment to the newventure becomes ironclad and all the stored passion and ambition isunleashed.
Your preparation for entrepreneurship begins on the day you areborn, if not before. Starting a business is an intensely personal en-deavor. You bring to it the total package of who you are—your per-onality, preferences, strengths, and weaknesses. These characteristicsare largely developed at an early age, shaping whether or not youwill be predisposed to the entrepreneurial leap.
Dan Bricklin, who transformed the computer industry with hisinvention of VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet, says his entre-preneurial backbone was formed as a kid in Philadelphia, where hisfather ran a printing business. As a boy, he spent his afternoons helpingat the plant and his evenings listening to business chatter around thedinner table. “I suppose you could say the entrepreneurial instinct wasin my genes,” he says. “My family’s unspoken dedication to the busi-ness gave me a healthy respect for the paradox of running your ownbusiness—the contradictory feelings of freedom and responsibilitythat define the experience of setting out on your own.”2.
Our early years not only inform whether we will leap at a startupopportunity, but why we might do so and what kind of founder we willmost likely become. Dan Bricklin credits his religious instruction at aJewish day school with seeding many of his founding values and skills:his early creative drive; his desire to make the world a better place;and his leadership skills learned by guiding services in synagogue andmentoring other students.
J.C. Faulkner, who built Decision One Mortgage from a blanksheet of paper in 1996 into a company valued at $100 million overfour years, says, “I have a memory of when I was in the third grade.When it was time to pick teams, the other kids would look to me andask ‘J.C., who will be the captains today?’ They would ask me to settlearguments and make rulings about whether balls were in- or out-of-bounds.
I remember one of the teachers asking me how I came to bethe one who ‘ran’ the game, and I said I didn’t know. It seemed like ithad always been that way.” Looking back, he recognizes that he had aknack for figuring out what motivated people, and a strong sense offairness. Thirty years later, these qualities drove his growing ambitionto leave his senior leadership role with First Union Corporation andcreate a new kind of company, one that attracted and unleashed thebest possible talent. His venture, Decision One Mortgage, quickly de-veloped a national reputation as a great place to work with a high per-formance culture.
For most entrepreneurs, time logged working for others signifi-cantly shapes their startup aspirations. In a Fall 2005 article in the Cal-ifornia Management Review, professor of organizational behavior PinoG. Audia and his graduate student, Christopher I. Rider, noted howearly work experience incubates and prepares future founders. “Al-though some individuals become successful entrepreneurs without re-lated prior experience, they are the exception, not the rule.Entrepreneurs are often organizational products.”3While working forother people, we develop expertise, serve customers, observe great andawful leaders, and watch untapped opportunities come and go. We ap-preciate the steady income and soak up the lessons, while our startupambitions simmer in a semi-conscious stew of hopes and what-ifs.
While studying neuroscience as an undergraduate at DavidsonCollege in the early 1980s, Mark Williams took a summer job to helpone of his professors build interactive teaching tools. Their goal wasto help students “see” how neural impulses (e.g., auditory or visualsignals) traveled through the brain. Using one of the earliest Macin-tosh computers, Mark worked in a dark basement for months,painstakingly building images. “These were very simple, very crudeanimations,” he says.
We had a 16 color card, and I would zoom theseimages up and literally move pixels around to create additional colorsand make something that looked remotely realistic. I think at the endof the summer we had, maybe, ten seconds of animation that we couldcontrol. It was an interesting idea, and we were very passionate aboutit, but in 1983 we were way ahead of the technology available to us.”That summer job was Mark’s first taste of how technology could bringtogether his passions for art, learning, and neuroscience—seeds thateventually gave rise to Modality, his Durham, North Carolina–basedmobile learning technology company.
Whether thinking about retirement, a sabbatical, or a dream business,most working adults fantasize from time to time about the day theywill be free to pursue some deeper calling. This yearning, while hardfor many to articulate or even admit, can be frighteningly strong, be-cause it springs from a place close to our core. As poet and organiza-tional consultant David Whyte observes, “While we think we are sim-ply driving to work every morning to earn a living, the soul knows itis secretly engaged in a life-or-death struggle for existence.
Most executive coaching clients with whom I’ve worked over thepast two decades are living out their personal versions of this struggle.They are talented, ambitious, and successful—through a corporatelens—but essentially dissatisfied with their professional role. Some-thing else is stirring inside. In working with hundreds of these clients,I’ve noticed a consistent pattern over the years—the unrelenting paceand compression of their lives, the politicization of their jobs, and thediminishing light in their eyes.
Although he was a fast-rising senior leader within First UnionCorporation during the early 1990s, J.C. Faulkner felt increasinglyfrustrated in his role. “There were some negative things percolatinginside of me,” he says. “We had an inefficient management team.There was a political sense about us that hurt our ability to compete—too focused on the inside and not focused enough on the competition.”
One night, while working late at the office, J.C. helped himself tocoffee in the break room. He’s not normally a coffee drinker, butneeded the boost to get him through a pressing pile of work left by acolleague. He returned the next morning ready to pick up where heleft off and was greeted by his boss’s executive assistant. She asked ifhe had been working late, and although he didn’t want to admit it, hewas kind of glad that somebody noticed.
“What I need to know,” she said, “is whether you drank a cup ofcoffee while you were here. If you did, you owe twenty-five cents forthe coffee.” “Well, I drank two cups,” he replied. “So I guess I owe you a halfa dollar.”
The money, of course, was not an issue. What caught him offguard was the bad taste the assistant’s response left in his mouth, a fa-miliar feeling of disappointment, disengagement. He was sure thathundreds of employees throughout the division were feeling it as well.“At that moment, I made a promise to myself,” he says. “When I createa company, people will never have to pay for spending time at work.”
THE EUREKA MOMENT
When he stepped into his evening bath more than 2,200 years ago,Archimedes had grown tired of searching, racking his mind for a fool-proof way to measure the true volume of the king’s crown (greatGreek mathematicians of antiquity were assigned such things). As heabsent-mindedly lowered his body and watched the water level rise,something clicked: Any object lowered into water will displace anamount equal to its volume. As the story goes, this thoroughly ra-tional man leapt out of his bath and into the streets of ancient Syra-cuse—naked and ecstatic, shouting, “Eureka!” (“I have found it!”).
Archimedes’s story is an apt metaphor for the emotional journeyof most first-time entrepreneurs. Before their eureka moments, theypuzzle over possibilities, question whether to move forward, wonderhow to pull it off, and hope for the right break. They have yet to stepinto the bath.
Then comes a moment of clarity, a defining event. The futurefounder is seized by a brilliant startup idea. The puzzle pieces cometogether with perfect clarity. Things will never look the same again.
Mark Williams recalls the jolt of intensity and excitement he feltas his medical students embraced his first iPod-based learning tools.“A student came up to me and said, ‘Dr. Williams, I learned five newbrain terms while waiting in line for my latte this morning.’” He said,“And this really represented a eureka moment for me. I saw the oppor-tunity to think bigger and more broadly across all types of learning.”
To understand Lynn Ivey’s eureka moment, we must go back tothe most transformational month of her life, January 2004. Oneevening, while having dinner with a fellow manager from Bank ofAmerica, she learned that an employee had been missing in action fortwo days, not showing up at work, not returning calls. The woman wassingle, like Lynn, and lived in the same neighborhood. Within an hour,Lynn and two others had pushed through the open front door of thewoman’s home. Minutes later, Lynn found her in her bed, dead of anapparent aneurysm. She was forty-seven years old—Lynn’s exact age.
The experience reminded Lynn that life is short and brought herface-to-face with something she hadn’t wanted to admit: She wasn’t happy with her work. She was far more fatigued than inspired. Withina week, as if on cue, Bank of America announced a plan to lay off12,000 employees. Two hundred of these were on a national serviceteam Lynn had just spent a year building. The company expected herto shut down the department over the next two months and thentransfer into another operational role.
One afternoon, about a week later, her father called. “Your motherhas had another episode,” he said. “She’s really confused, and I don’tknow what to do.” Lynn hurried to her childhood home in Wilming-ton, North Carolina, on a quest to help her family find comfort andmake sense of her mother’s deteriorating, unwinding life. Soon shelearned that she was eligible for three months of personal leave underthe Family Medical Leave Act. She filed for those three months, plusan additional three months of accumulated time off. On her last daywith the bank, she cleared out a decade’s worth of files and papersfrom her office, filling a large, two-wheeled, recycling bin to the brim,thinking her banking career was most likely over. “When I walked out,I had my lamp in one hand and a few pictures in the other,” she said.“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, is this all there is?’”
Over the next year, Lynn sought solutions for her mom’s compli-cated medical needs and her dad’s pain. The more she learned aboutexisting services, the more she was convinced of a gap in the market,a need for a comfortable and clean—even luxurious—daycare facilityfor seniors with memory loss. In addition to her mom’s needs, she sawher dad’s burden, felt her own, and thought the right care center wouldbring relief and comfort to family caregivers as well.
Lynn never found the perfect care center for her mom, and as shebegan to think about what her next career step might be, she inchedtoward a radical idea. What if she started an adult daycare center her-self ? Although she knew what the experience should provide—com-fort, safety, and stimulation in a warm, nurturing, luxuriousenvironment—she couldn’t visualize the component parts. She talkedwith industry experts and visited site after site, but saw nothing re-motely close to her ideal center. Most facilities seemed poorly man-aged and maintained, lacking even the basics of compassion andcomfort.
By the time she visited a center in King’s Mountain, North Car-olina, she had been searching and puzzling for many months, lookingfor a model that made sense. She drove up a long driveway to the fa-cility, stunned by what she saw. “It was awesome, on a huge piece ofland, with a huge new building,” she remembers. “After taking thetour, talking with the director—just seeing the place, the newness andthe cleanliness of it—I looked at her and I said, ‘This is it. I’m goingto do this.’” For the first time, Lynn could visualize her facility: how itwould look and feel; how staff and guests would move about; and howstruggling families would find relief within it. Although she had anumber of compelling reasons to pursue her concept, from honoringher mother to addressing what she thought to be a gaping hole in thesenior care market, this was the moment when all the pieces first cametogether into a workable whole.
THE POINT OF NO RETURN
Like Archimedes leaping from his bath, there is a point in everystartup journey when hesitancy melts away and there’s no turningback. This might take the form of a high profile, catalytic event, suchas Mark Kahn telling his boss in a French casino that he was quittinghis job or Lynn Ivey buying a piece of land on which to build her fu-ture center. But this is not always the case. Sometimes, the cornerturned is a psychological one.
Eleven months before J.C. Faulkner left First Union to start hisnew company, he made a fateful decision while sitting in the office ofa trusted mentor, Doug Crisp. Doug, who had hired J.C. into the banktwelve years earlier, was trying to lure him into joining his leadershipteam in a new bank division. J.C., however, politely turned him down.He said that he appreciated the offer but didn’t think a move was rightfor him at that time. “I haven’t accomplished everything I need to doin my current job,” he recalls saying.
“Really?” Doug asked. It sounded fishy. He pressed on, askingquestion after question, refusing to take no for an answer.But J.C. wouldn’t say yes.
Finally, Doug said, “Jay, there’s something here I don’t know. Thisis a good promotion for you. Hell of an opportunity. More money thanyou’re making now. And I know you’d love to work for me. What amI missing?”
J.C. paused. “I’m going to tell you something, and I hope you won’t use itagainst me,” he said. “I’m going to leave the bank and start a new com-pany in eleven months. I can’t commit to anything new. You needsomebody who’s going to stick around.”
In two minutes, J.C. Faulkner had violated two fundamental rulesof corporate success: Don’t turn down promotions, and don’t share your exitplans with a higher-level leader. But one of the bank’s top executives hadflushed him out. “I had a trust level with him,” J.C. later remembered.“He’s the only guy above me that I would have told about my plans.”Looking back, J.C. remembers this as his point of no return, the mo-ment that he knew for sure: He was going to risk everything he’dearned over the past twelve years and leap into an uncertain future asan entrepreneur.