The Brilliance of The Struggle

Ben Horowitz from Andreessen Horowitz has a beautiful post up titled The Struggle. He captures – in words – what many entrepreneurs, especially entrepreneurial CEOs go through. I’ve heard variants of it many times over the years and have experienced it myself in several companies where I’ve been the entrepreneur and many companies where I’ve been the investor. Ben states that there is no answer to The Struggle but offers some things that may or may not help.

I’d like to take it one step further and explain the brilliance of The Struggle. And I’ll begin at the end, by starting with one my favorite John Galt quotes.

“It’s not that I don’t suffer, it’s that I know the unimportance of suffering.” – John Galt

When you accept the complete and total unimportance of suffering, you can actually enjoy The Struggle. It’s just a step along the way, another experience in life, of the cumulative experiences before we ultimately die. Suffering, The Struggle, disappointment, failure, and self-doubt – these are all part of being an entrepreneur. And that brings to mind the famous Nietzsche quote.

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Remember always that we all will die. And it’s unlikely that The Struggle will kill us. If we approach it the right way it will make us stronger. Here are a few examples from my first company, Feld Technologies (1987 – 1993).

Hyperion: While Feld Technologies was a software consulting company, the companies that installed the networks that our software ran on (mostly PC-based Novell Networks) were so shitty that we set up our own small network installation group. Some of our clients wanted to buy everything from us so we also sold them the hardware. We made about 20% margin on the hardware so this was worthwhile, especially since we were able to bill by the hour for all the time we spent on this stuff. People liked working with us – all of our new business either was “random” or “word of mouth.” We ended up working for a bunch of Boston-based VC firms and several of them referred us to their biotech investments. In the early 1990’s, biotech was white hot – these companies raised tons of money and spent it on crazy wet lab facilities, which included lots and lots of hardware. I can’t remember much about Hyperion other than they were out on 495 somewhere (it was a long drive) and they bought a bunch of hardware from us. They paid intermittently and one day we realized they owed us around $75,000 and hadn’t paid us in over 60 days. For another 30 days I called and kept getting promised checks, which never came. I vividly remember The Struggle – I was lying in bed with Amy in our apartment at 15 Sleeper Street (Apt 304 in case you were curious). It was the middle of the night and I couldn’t sleep. Amy could feel the wheels turning in my brain and asked me what was wrong. I told her I was worried Feld Technologies wasn’t going to make payroll because Hyperion owed us $75,000. I then went in the bathroom and threw up. It’s important to realize that it wasn’t that we were out $75,000, but the hardware had cost us 80% of this and we’d already paid our hardware vendor so we were really out over $125,000. We were a $1.5m-ish self-funded business at the time so this was a devastatingly large amount of money for us. After a sleepless night, on a totally empty stomach, I got in my car and drove out to Hyperion. They were still there (thankfully) – I then sat in the lobby until the CFO would meet with me, and I stayed in his office until he brought me a check for whatever they owed us. They went out of business a few months later.

Avatar: My parter Dave Jilk and I were at a gas station filling up his red Ford Tempo with gas on our way to Avatar in Hopkinton. We knew it was going to be a terrible meeting and each of us was incredibly anxious. We were in the middle of The Struggle. We’d taken on our first Mac custom software project and were using an RDBMS called ACI 4D which was new to us. It was one of the two choices on the Mac at the time (the other was Blythe Omnis) – each had their own version of suckage especially when compared to the PC-based 4GL called Clarion that we used for most of our clients. We we’re really struggling with 4D – performance on the Mac was awful, the networking dynamics were weak (and the Mac networking software was terribly slow at the time), and our understanding of how to really tune it was non-existant. We had heard of some successful 4D implementations but they were hard to find out much about. We knew this was likely our final meeting where we’d get fired, even though that rarely happened in our world. We were meeting with Tom Bogan, the CEO, and a few other people on his team. We liked Tom a lot – he was a very direct and thoughtful CEO and we knew we were failing him. Over the preceding months, we had tried extremely hard and worked many unbillable hours trying to get things working, but just couldn’t. I don’t remember the ACI folks being very helpful and I remember a number of conversations with Dave about “the fucking Macintosh.” We were deep in The Struggle. Tom eventually fired us (I don’t remember if it was at that meeting or not). He and I lost touch over the years (I’m sure he was glad to be rid of us) until I had breakfast with him in Boulder in 1997 when he was first looking at investing in Rally Software. I started out the meal by saying “hi – sorry we did such a crummy job for you at Avatar” and he responded, graciously, with “that was a long time ago, wasn’t it.”

I’ve got a lot more stories like this from Feld Technologies and several other companies I co-founded, including Interliant and Email Publishing, along with long stretches of time at Mobius Venture Capital. All of them share The Struggle and when I reflect on it from my perch at 46.5 years old, I recognize the unimportance of suffering.

  • http://twitter.com/AIHammer Alex Hammer

    That is a fantastic story about Hyperion because it illustrates that you have to do what you have to do to be successful, and in that case, as with many, confronting situations directly is most effective. It sure beats throwing up! The Avatar example illustrates your brutal honesty with yourself. If you are brutally honest with yourself then it is easier to be brutally honest with others also in a way that they can (if the recipient is also honest with oneself) also find easier to accept. In terms of the struggle, specifically, the greatest battle is always with oneself. As it is famously said, “we have met the enemy, and it is us”. I believe that life is a mirror constantly giving back to us what we have given out (karma), but additionally, what we need in the next step of our development to learn and grow. Self-management is always the key. It has also been said (paraphrase) “one who can manage oneself is more powerful than an army that can conquer an entire city”. That sentiment is true.

  • RedRookDigital

    Thanks for the honesty, and the insight on making it through the struggle.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      I have no doubt I will spend many more times in The Struggle. Each time, I’ll go back and read this post to remind myself of the unimportance of suffering.

      • RedRookDigital

        It reminds me of Churchill’s “If you’re going through hell, keep going”.

        • http://www.feld.com bfeld

          Yup – another awesome quote that every entrepreneur should remember.

      • http://knowabout.it/ falicon

        “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
        – John Lennon

        • http://www.feld.com bfeld

          Another beautiful one.

  • http://www.facebook.com/alexhammeronfaceb Alex Hammer

    That is a fantastic story about Hyperion because it illustrates that you have to do what you have to do to be successful, and in that case, as with many, confronting situations directly is most effective. It sure beats throwing up! The Avatar example illustrates your brutal honesty with yourself. If you are brutally honest with yourself then it is easier to be brutally honest with others also in a way that they can (if the recipient is also honest with oneself) also find easier to accept. In terms of the struggle, specifically, the greatest battle is always with oneself. As it is famously said, “we have met the enemy, and it is us”. I believe that life is a mirror constantly giving back to us what we have given out (karma), but additionally, what we need in the next step of our development to learn and grow. Self-management is always the key. It has also been said (paraphrase) “one who can manage oneself is more powerful than an army that can conquer an entire city”. That sentiment is true.

  • http://freepository.com John Minnihan

    Your Hyperion experience was my $4M A round that collapsed 8 days from closing in 2000.

    It was brutal. I slept very little, lost weight + a ton of money and it nearly destroyed my marriage. I was on autopilot for a while, but I know I learned a lot.

    And you’re right – the suffering is meaningless. The shit is happening whether you push thru it w/ resolved determination or instead complain all the way abt how [x] is [unfair|not right| whatever].

  • http://hegranes.com/ jonathan hegranes

    While on a run this weekend, @fazworks and I were talking about the trough that every company goes through and how it inevitably takes 2-3 years to find a vein that works… In the mean time there is suffering, and I love the perspective of enjoying it!

  • Mike

    Good quotes, here’s another I like, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Great one!

  • MBSchwietz

    It seems to me that the “struggle” is a “both/and”. I do get something ultimately from it – It may be at times an “awareness of the unimportance of suffering” and at times I might just wake up to parts of myself I was asleep to that are wonderfully brilliant. Some of the struggle or suffering is simply my refusal to let go of what I think a situation needs to look like for me to be happy. Truth is, something much bigger than myself is invested in my joy more than I will ever be. Grab the grace in every situation (even marathons and ultra events).

  • http://twitter.com/davidsmuts David Smuts

    Life is a struggle, so why shouldn’t creating an enterprise be as well? You know the saying goes; “What doesn’t kill you, just makes you paranoid!” I’m either thriving or surviving.

  • http://www.github.com/misham Misha

    In the days leading up to the “resolution” of Hyperion not paying, how did you deal with knowing you may not meet your payroll?

    I’ve never had the experience of that degree, I’m extrapolating from my limited experience here; for me it’s hard when I feel responsible for something and something that feels outside of my control is causing problems. I’m very hard on myself and I haven’t figured out how to separate it out. Trying to ride it out doesn’t work either for whatever reason; every time I let the feeling of desperation wash over me, everything else get’s washed out and I become ineffective.

    Any tips on how to deal with this better?

    Thanks as always for sharing your examples.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      We (my partner Dave and I) had to put money into the business. We both had pretty low personal burn rates at the time and were making a decent amount of money ($100k salaries + annual pre-tax profit of about 25%) and we were able to bonus out most of the money. It was tough to loan the company after tax dollars to make payroll, but we did it a few times. I remember the Hyperion one being big enough that the check I wrote was really uncomfortable.

      Re: tips on how to deal with this better – my biggest realization is embodied in the John Galt quote – recognize the unimportance of suffering. You are going to suffer. It’s going to be hard. But it ultimately doesn’t matter to the universe. So – do all the things you need to do to calm yourself down (sleep, meditate, talk to a trusted partner or SO) and then tackle the issue directly and try to work through it until you get to the other side.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_UTFQXHKUCDYQ5E2RSBSSL4G4IA Bill Mosby

        A supportive spouse is beyond important at times like that, wouldn’t you say?

        • http://www.feld.com bfeld

          Hugely important.

        • http://twitter.com/alberthartman Albert Hartman

          The secret ingredient.

      • http://www.github.com/misham Misha

        Keeping that point in mind – work though it – while in the middle of feeling down is probably the hardest part of it all. I’m sure experience plays a good deal into being aware of the need to keep going.

        That and PostIt notes all over the place.

        Thanks

      • http://www.justanentrepreneur.com Philip Sugar

        Money focuses the mind doesn’t it? Interesting point is that for most people your own money focuses it like a laser while OPM is more like a floodlight.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mike.vaughn.129 Mike Vaughn

    Brad, thanks for writing this article and the honesty. After reading this, it reminded me of a saying, “Luck is when hard work meets opportunity”. A little off topic but so true. Perseverance is an important element. Believe it or not, I got this quote from a fortune cookie.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      A perfect fortune cookie quote and very suitable to add “in bed” to the end as is the fortune cookie tradition (as least in my household).

  • http://byJess.net/ Jess Bachman

    I wonder in these times of the idealized serial entrepreneur that more people are giving up in the The Struggle and chaulking it up as a “learning experience” and another 200 pixels to their linkedin profile.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      I’m sure there’s some of that going on, but I think that’s ALWAYS going on.

    • http://www.github.com/misham Misha

      Is that necessarily bad though? The “giving up” can be read as

      Wasn’t meant to be an entrepreneur

      Which can be qualified further, but adding “at this time” or a number of other qualifiers.

      Assuming it was a __real__ learning experience, as in the person actually gained something out of it; they grew personally and/or professionally, then it’s a win. At the end of the day, what are the startups about?

      That’s a personal question, and I would imagine to a lot of people, it’s about learning and having a better, perceived, experience than working for a BigCo. The “intrinsic” motivation seems to be a lot more powerful in this case.

      If it was, I tried to get rich quick and failed, that’s fairly easy to see when interviewing a person.

      • http://byJess.net/ Jess Bachman

        indeed, there is an upside to quitting.
        http://www.freakonomics.com/2011/09/30/new-freakonomics-radio-podcast-the-upside-of-quitting/ But I suspect it’s much harder to do when you have other people relying on your for their paycheck.

        • http://www.github.com/misham Misha

          Good point. In my comment, I didn’t even consider the possibility of quitting when other people depend on you.

          I was commenting on the “comforting” aspect you describe of adding experience to your resume and the assumption made that one learned something.

          From my personal experience, that is not always the case. I’ve had several “learning experiences” that I did not actually learn anything until much much later or not at all, I’m sure.

          I think it’s simple to tell ourselves, it’s ok that it didn’t work out, at least I learned something. It’s a little white lie that makes things easier day-to-day. I’m not judging, I do this just as much as the next person.

          If I’m hiring a developer for a job, I don’t mind seeing these kinds of 200px attempts, tells me s/he tried to build something and it didn’t work out. They, most likely, have a lot of great experience and in the process of trying to build something have learned, if nothing else, how to learn on the fly. That’s a big plus in my mind. Unless they’re looking for a job at Big/SlowCo as they are more likely to hate their job.

      • QualityCoding.info

        “At the end of the day, what are the startups about?”
        Startups are suppose to be about bringing innovative products/services to the consumer. Products/services that big business are either too large to tackle or too short sighted to notice.

        • http://www.github.com/misham Misha

          Sure, but startups are not some nebulous entity. People are the ones who create and run startups. It’s the __person’s__ passion, creativity and pure willpower that build products/services.

          If your willpower fails or the passion runs out or you’re not getting the emotional support you need, you will fail. Often there are many other reasons involved, I’m sure.

          The answer to your question above, What are the startups about, is a very personal one, just like what startups are supposed to be about.

          • QualityCoding.info

            Nebulous is exactly what startups are:
            .
            neb·u·lous
            adjective
            1. hazy, vague, indistinct, or confused
            .
            Everything about a startup is hazy, vague, etc. What a startup is doing is creating something that isn’t quite exact yet. Not just the product or service but the “business entitiy” itself.
            .A startup is a legal entity. The idea is the startup should live on long past the founder(s) life span. It is something that should bring value to society. Yes the rewards for building a successful business are great, as they should be, but a business is not suppose to benefit only the founder(s). If in fact it did, then it would be fraudulent because in the U.S. customers are suppose to receive some benefit in exchange for the money they give a business when purchasing products or services. So the business entity is suppose to bring value to the customer..The goal of the founder(s) is not to will the business to success. The goal is to create an entity that will be successful. A founder should not *need* to do everything. The entity should be able to, at some point, exist on it’s own without the intevention of the founder(s)..I was answering the question “What are the startups about?” posed by you in the post I responded to. I wasn’t asking that question..Startups are not suppose to be personal, not at all. Startups are suppose to be communal. You need customers in a startup just like any other business..What I think you are saying and very intelligently introspectively is how a person enjoys being an entrepreneur. Don’t get the project of creating the product or service confused with building a business. A business should have multiple products and/or services..Look at it like this a community discussion software tool startup isn’t building software. It’s building a way for people to enjoy their favorite communities around the web. Apple doesn’t build cellular phones. They build ways for people to communicate.

  • http://twitter.com/alberthartman Albert Hartman

    Reminds me of the Dev Patel’s comment in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”:

    “Everything will be all right in the end… if it’s not all right then it’s not the end.”

  • QualityCoding.info

    A perfect example of how not to do a start up! But, yet a perfect example of how things really happen.
    . <–Maybe a period where not needed will start a new paragraph in Disqus.
    If you would have had proper funding you could have called in an expert and not done damage to the consumer (Avatar). So, the consumer suffered because of improper business management. Stubborn, do it myself on a shoestring attitude that does no one any good except…
    .
    The entrepreneur. The entrepreneur gets a high from such things. Yes, it would have been better if you had taken a lose on Avatar by calling in an expert to finish the work. But, that's not the way of the entrepreneur. I know these things because I ran a computer installation, troubleshooting, and repair business myself. It was a one man show and I did thousands of repair calls in the 5 years I had the business.
    .
    It's sad that things are still done this way today. Entrepreneurs either can't get the proper funding needed to start correctly or they got tired of trying to get funding over the years and figured the only way to start is in a haphazard manner.
    .
    For example, the TechStars thingy helps entrepreneurs learn by doing. Just recently I've realized how many of those types of "incubators" exist for kids wanting to do various start up projects. The one drawback is they teach people the consumer is not king. The thrill of the start up is. But, in reality the consumer is king and your business should be in business to put the consumer in a better position after having done business with you (consumer also includes businesses that are customers).
    .
    Having been involved in various start ups over the years either as a founder or an employee (dumbass) I know how great the adrenaline rush is from doing a start up on a shoe string. But, how much harm is done to the consumer to get that rush?
    .
    Over the years I've concluded that the entrepreneur should be taught to determine what it will take to bring their idea to market in a way that reduces risk to the consumer. If they can't find funding for that, then it's best to find another idea to pursue. One that you have or can get proper funding.
    .
    An important point is how much is the consumer harmed? Well for small software projects involving chat groups or other entertainment based system the consumer won't be hamed much if things do work right. But when you start to look into opportunities that can save lives and bring with them probably returns in the 100s of millions then shoestring startups can cause serious damage to the consumer.
    .
    I like the stories you related to us Brad. But, let's not forget if we are still doing startups (by force not choice) the same as they were done 50 years ago then where have we moved forward? What have we learned in 50 years? Why haven't we learned to do thing right?
    .
    My opinion is entrepreneurs should be celebrated. They are cream of the crop people who are willing to create things that make the world a better place. We should "give" them every endeavor supporting advantage we can. There are people who want jobs and the biggest job creator is small businesses started by entrepreneurs.
    .
    We allow people to go without food and clothing when they could have a job if we just would help entrepreneurs the right way. We can create jobs by just taking the time to realize we can and should endeavor to make sure start ups succeed.
    .
    What's the percentage of small businesses that fail within the first 5 years? I think it's 80&+ right? That's been going on for decades. How stupid are we as humans knowing that we can put food on peoples tables by providing them with the opportunity to work and make a living by ensuring startups have the resources they need to succeed but yet we don't do it?

  • http://www.internetinc.com/ Eric Shannon

    I sat bolt upright after reading a couple lines of Ben’s post and then did the same with yours – you’ve both captured it. It’s the cost of doing business or maybe just the cost of doing.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Absolutely the cost of doing! Doing is really really hard.

  • http://www.bombbomb.com Conor McCluskey

    Thanks for the Post Brad I loved it. My mentor always reminds me. “They can’t eat you” Are you and your wife still working on the book?

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Yup – the first book (Startup Communities) will be out in September and Startup Life (with Amy) will be out in December.

  • http://petegrif.tumblr.com/ Pete Griffiths

    I loved Ben’s post and thanks for this one.

    I bootstrapped my first company from nothing to over 100 employees in a few short years and had moments very similar to yours with Hyperion. I vividly remember a huge company not paying us for months because it was their ‘policy.’ Their accounts receivable department had an answerphone! Stomach churning stuff.

  • http://twitter.com/techguy John Lynn

    The brilliance of your stories. Please keep them coming!

  • http://fullcontact.com/ Bart Lorang

    This post caused some serious flashbacks for me. Whether it was hammering out a major “make-or-break” contract with a customer only a few days before they agreed to be purchased, or flying to a foreign country to demand payment on a 7-figure delinquent invoice, that is the life of a capital constrained company.

    Nearly every founding entrepreneur I know has similar war stories. I don’t think most employees truly ever understand how close to the edge their founders live on a daily basis.

    • www.QualityCoding.info

      Yes, that’s one of the reasons I said in my post below I was a dumbass employee. After having takin’ on the entrepreneurial spirit then taking a job it was grueling to listen to people’s comments and complaints about the founder. They just don’t know how difficult the situation can be.
      It’s another reason we as a country should do all we can to help entrepreneurs succeed.

  • Iggy Fanlo

    Thanks so much for sharing this. I almost threw up (like you did) remembering some of the “struggles” that I’ve gone through. And yes, the unimportance of the suffering is spot n, but knowing that others are struggling and have struggled, reveals the unimportance of it

  • http://abdallahalhakim.tumblr.com/ Abdallah Al-Hakim

    the struggle post was beautifully written and great job Brad for highlighting it on your blog.

  • https://twitter.com/truely_me007 truelyme

    “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” …This quote is just awesome and teaches so much. Your post is just too good.

  • http://simplifilm.com/ Chris Johnson

    Another lesson here – is that you’re describing the difference between what PG calls “resourceful” and not resourceful.

    When a successful company is owed money, the founder will have no problem doing what you did to get a check. When a flop is owed, then they “called yesterday and didn’t hear back.”

    When you’re owed a significant sum, you are competing with everything: market conditions is one thing.

    But you have to become more important than Payroll, their mortgage, child support, etc. You can be cordial when you do this, but if they have to sell their beemer to pay you, they’ll consider it a better deal.

  • vavoida

    great stuff –

    wrt “That which does not kill us makes us stronger”

    check out “Trial of the Will” by Christopher Hitchenshttp://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2012/01/hitchens-201201

  • http://twitter.com/tellatic tellatic

    Need to print this out real big and hang it on the wall: “When you accept the complete and total unimportance of suffering, you can actually enjoy The Struggle”. Thanks for helping keep things in perspective.

  • http://twitter.com/RxSennett Rosie Sennett

    If you sit at the table and only play $5’s you’ll never know what it feels like to win when you play $100 at a time. So many things have felt like they were the end of the world… and they weren’t. Now at 47 – I seem to remember that more often and my puke tolerance is much, much higher for it. Well Said.

  • https://twitter.com/#!/chrisfharvey Chris F. Harvey

    Loved it. There is glory in the struggle.

  • Pingback: Stories of failure and redemption – 18 startup founders share their lowest moments before coming out on top | Attendly

  • Pingback: VC's Perspective on Early Stage Tech Marketing and Sales

  • Pingback: McMinnville

  • Pingback: Google