I’m working on a new book with Dave Jilk, my first business partner. It is titled The Entrepreneur’s Weekly Nietzsche: A Book for Disruptors. We are in the home stretch (it’ll be published sometime in the second quarter), and I’m adding a little connecting tissue to the major sections this morning.
The third major section (of five) is called Free Spirits. Dave had already written the section introduction, which meant that I had 20% less writing to do this morning than I expected.
As I read through what he had written, I remembered the story of Nietzsche’s “The Three Metamorphoses,” which I’ve been using a lot lately to think about my own life. Following is an appetizer from the upcoming book.
For Nietzsche, the best human beings are what he calls free spirits. Early in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a section called “The Three Metamorphoses” describes three stages a free spirit must pass through in its full development: the camel, the lion, and the child.
The camel is a dutiful beast of burden, in a humble but not humiliating way. It is virtuous and willing to bear any difficulty to accomplish what is needed. But the camel is isolated from those who choose the comfortable and easy, leaving its spirit in a “desert.” In this desert, the camel transforms into the lion, which actively opposes tradition, taboos, and the status quo. In particular, the lion responds to the “Thou Shalt” of the world with a “Holy No.” The lion is a contrarian, an isolated iconoclast. But a spirit cannot create new values simply by saying “no” to the ways of the world. For that, it must become the child, which has a “beginner’s mind,” sees the world as play, a fresh start, as perpetual motion. The child speaks a “Holy Yes” which enables it to dictate its own will, not in reaction to the world but independently. As spiritualist Ken Wilber puts it, these transformations do not each supersede their preceding stage but rather they “transcend and include.”
It is not hard to see how this maps to disruptive entrepreneurship. The camel gets things done but is too embedded in the tasks of the moment to produce more than incremental change. The lion sees what is broken in the world and refuses to just go along, but has no way to find a truly novel path. The child frees itself of its attachments and starts fresh, enabling it to create an entirely new way of doing things that shakes an industry to its foundations.
If you are a free spirit, what stage of metamorphosis are you in: Are you a camel, a lion, or a child?
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.