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Startup founders aren’t crazy — not exactly, anyway

In good times, launching a startup is a leap of faith. In times like this, with investors turning stingy and skeptical, it’s more like a leap of insanity.

And yet they come — the visionaries, the dreamers, the naive, the once-bitten, but hardly shy veterans of the startups gone down in flames. More than 600 of them have come to the Collision tech conference in New Orleans this week in the form of startups that pack the cavernous exhibition hall.

Countless more are here in the form of attendees hoping to pick up advice, partners, employees, customers, an edge, investors’ cash or at least the promise of a meeting. No, it doesn’t make sense on its face, but innovation and entrepreneurship doesn’t come from things that make sense on their faces.

“The mistake is thinking of a startup as a job,” Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur Steve Blank told me at Collision on Thursday. “It’s the world’s (worst) job. It’s the world’s best calling. If you’re not called to do this, don’t do it, because the odds of you succeeding are extremely low.”

Megan Quinn and Peter Pham

Some would say it takes drive. Megan Quinn, a growth-focused general partner at Spark Capital, said “obsession” is a more accurate way to put it. Quinn along with Peter Pham, a startup refugee and the co-founder of the Santa Monica, Calif. incubator Science, presented from the popular Startup University stage at the conference.

“In the early days of a startup, it is about obsessively getting off the ground,” she said. “You have a stopwatch on you. You need to build and you need to talk to customers. And like I said, you have to be obsessive.”

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Obsessive. And there they were Thursday morning: standing-room only, listening to just what a miserable life launching a startup is. Being a founder means hearing “no,” again and again. It means having family and friends doubt your sanity. It means wanting desperately to give up and then deciding to go on and then wishing you’d given up.

Pham, a co-founder of the confounding and closed down Silicon Valley startup Color, has kept score of the reaction Science’s portfolio companies get when they pitch investors. Dollar Shave Club, which is now has legacy razor company Gillette rattled, was turned down for funding 70 times, he said, before it got off the ground.

“I’ve had 3,000 ‘nos’ in four years,” he said. “And so many entrepreneurs will just break down and quit. It was soul-crushing.”

And yet, as the session went on, more came to the Startup stage, filling more of the standing room. Some came knowing you can’t take “no” for an answer. Some no doubt knew what they were in for. Some might have been a little dazzled by the often-told story of startup success — the “seven-year overnight” success stories,” Pham called them.

“The problem nowadays is that this has become so cool,” Blank says of starting a company, “that everybody thinks they are going to be (Mark) Zuckerberg.”

But very few are going to be Mark Zuckerberg. In fact, almost none, or maybe, in fact, none, are going to be Mark Zuckerberg. And yet they came, obsessed.

“If you’re doing it for the adventure, for the calling, for the passion, because you have the vision that you’re desperate to turn into reality, this is a hell of a career, because there is immense psychic satisfaction and it comes with a non-zero percentage that you could hit the lottery,” said Blank, who Collision described as “an eight-time-serial-entrepreneur-turned educator,” a reference to his experience founding or working in eight companies and his role now teaching entrepreneurship at Stanford University.

It’s the same reason dancers dance and painters paint, he said, just before presenting a Collision session called “How to Build a Lean Startup.”

“It’s like being an artist,” he said. “You’re driven. You’re called to be an artist or a musician or whatever. Yeah, you might get paid, but very few true artists or painters or composers or dancers” do it for the money.

They do it because they can’t not do it. And the undeterred just kept coming to the Startup stage to hear Quinn and Pham talk about charting the startup journey. They came with questions: How do you build a team, find a co-founder, inject a new idea into an existing market, find work/balance?  Insert the sound of a needle scratching across an old vinyl LP here.

How do you find work/life balance? You don’t.

“You will you will gain weight and you will work obsessively,” said Pham, who also worked at Photobucket and BillShrink. “You will sneak that email at dinner. You will stay up until 2 a.m., working, while your significant other is sleeping.”

Reggie LaRoche

Reggie LaRoche, who wasn’t in the standing room overflow, but sitting in the front row, didn’t come to hear that. LaRoche is cooking up a travel industry play that would help consumers sift through the Byzantine pricing of hotels and air flights and he’s looking for thoughts about the best platform on which to deliver his model.

“For me, it’s all about the solution,” said LaRoche, 41, who’s led tours around the world for the nation’s big travel and tourism companies. Now he wants to build up his Signature Travel Club into a full-fledged business. “If you have identified a problem and there is a solution, where people are spending a lot of money unnecessarily because they don’t have the knowledge and the content that’s out there, there is always going to be an opportunity as an entrepreneur to make money.”  

Is he obsessed? LaRoche goes with “passionate.”“I’m actually passionate about solving an issue,” he said. “I want the issue to be solved.”

And let’s face it, “obsessed,” “passionate,” it’s all kind of splitting hairs. And neither LaRoche or those packed into the Startup University Stage area had time for splitting hairs.

After all, they’ve got companies to start.

Photo of Michael Gasiorek of Startup Grind interviewing Peter Pham and Megan Quinn and photo of Reggie LaRoche by Mike Cassidy.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.