At the beginning of the 1900’s, Ernest Shackleton was merely a third officer in an expedition to the South Pole. He was sent home early for health reasons. Determined to make it work again, he put out an ad in 1907 that stated: “Men Wanted…for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.”
Even with this daunting description, there was no shortage of people lining up for the adventure. In 1909, he and his team made it farther south than anyone before them. King Edward VII knighted Sir Ernest Shackleton upon his return home.
When the CTO and co-founder of my company in Seattle showed me this ad, it clarified the reason why I chose to leave my cushy big-company position and join his adventurous—and uncomfortable—startup.
In a “normal” job, my inner, motivating voice was full of fear—I need to successfully complete this task to get a good performance review to keep my job.
In an adventure, I excitedly think to myself that I need to handle my responsibilities in order to drive the company forward, to push it closer toward our collective goal and farther than others have gone before us.
Fear and excitement emanate from the same place, but the difference in motivation is like night and day. (Or the climates of San Francisco and Seattle/Seahawks and Raiders).
These days, women and men alike join startup adventures. But the hyper-competitive market for knowledge workers offers them competitive wages, sizable stock option packages and the sunny climes of Northern California instead of low wages, long months of complete darkness and bitter cold (though Seattle’s tech scene is shrouded in clouds and rain for seven months of the year, summers and autumns are brilliant).
So it’s the adventure of the unknown and the promise of honor and recognition that diverts the unconventional person from taking the safe passage of a tech behemoth to taking a chance on a well-funded venture.
In my career, I’ve alternated between the cushy company and the varying degrees of discomfort offered by early-stage and late-stage ventures. What I’ve found is that true professional – as well as personal– growth happens only when I’ve placed myself in situations outside of my comfort zone. This can certainly happen in large companies, but is more apt to happen in startups.
Also, I’ve found that the most effective situation for all parties in a startup is one where the organization is as flat as possible. The ideal scenario features two visionary managers leading a team of individual contributors, who in turn are responsible for driving their respective disciplines.
For those founders who also have the experience to be effective managers, a rare category into which my CEO and CTO fall, the most satisfying thing for them about doing startups is to see the people around them realize their potential, discovering who they are and what they can do.
Adventure is about creating opportunities for experiences and stepping into them. It’s obvious that I’m hooked on this elixir.
Question is, do you want be like Shackleton or simply shackled to a desk?