Last Thursday marked six months from my departure from Mentor Graphics. And, on almost every day of those six months, someone has asked me “What are you working on?” I’ve found it difficult to answer that question.
From November 15th (my last day at Mentor) until January 1st, I enjoyed the holiday season. Thanksgiving and Christmas are wonderful holidays, and it was a blessing to be present, rested, and free of distractions to celebrate the season with my family. But then the New Year rolled around, and it was time to get serious. If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that I’ve been doing some consulting and some angel investing and a lot of thinking about start-ups.
I’ve also invested a lot of energy in building relationships. I’ve kept in touch with my former colleagues at Mentor, re-connected with friends as far back as high school, gotten to know quite a few people in Santa Cruz technology community, and had many interesting meetings with entrepreneurs and investors in Silicon Valley. It has been fun to get to know new people and satisfying to be able to help some of them in one way or another. Many of these people have been very generous in providing assistance to me. Some people imagine business people to be greedy and selfish, but I’m consistently impressed with how willing most of them are to help others.
My primary goal, however, is to start a new business. So, of course, in-between the consulting, investing, and relationship-building, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about that particular problem. I’ve got notes on approximately 25 different ideas for businesses, and have developed first drafts of business plans for a handful of them. I’ve worked on technology prototypes for a couple. But — despite generous offers from many people to act as sounding boards — I haven’t told anyone outside my immediate family about any of them.
I’ve been wondering why I find sharing my ideas difficult. I’m not afraid that someone will take an idea I’ve shown them, rush off to form a competing company, and beat me to market. If something I showed them was interesting to them, they’d be more likely to want to collaborate than compete. And I’m certainly not shy. So, what’s the problem?
Telling people about my business ideas feels to me like revealing some private part of my identity. We talk about the weather, sports, and the like with everyone. With our friends, we talk about our careers, our children’s successes, and our vacations. With business associates, we talk about what technologies and companies are succeeding or failing, what deals are being done, and (sometimes ruefully) which investment and career decisions we have made. But, outside of our family and closest friends, most of us don’t share our faith, our politics, our financial situations, our health, our marriages, or our fears. Those are topics that make us feel vulnerable. And, at this point, new business ideas feel like that to me.
My previous business, CodeSourcery, was not a deliberate creation. I’d never considered starting a business when I got a call from a potential customer; all I had to do to get started was to say “Yes, I will do that for you.” So, I did. The business gradually grew, and eventually I had to confront the reality that I had become an entrepreneur, rather than a Ph.D. student. But I didn’t have to consciously say “I believe in CodeSourcery” before there was a CodeSourcery in which to believe.
Committing time and capital to a business is like going to church; it’s a public demonstration of faith. After all, the future success of a start-up is no more self-evident than the existence of God; in both cases, you must decide whether you believe. Sharing a business plan is like sharing your faith; even amongst your friends, some will agree, some will disagree, and some will think you a fool.
In this past week, I have had the courage to show a pitch deck to a couple of friends, both of whom provided excellent feedback. That experience was rewarding, both in that they provided constructive criticism, but also in that they were supportive of the process. I plan to refine the presentation and, gradually, share it with more people. At some point, I’ll believe — in this business or another one — and at that point I’ll be comfortable being much mort forthcoming.
Keeping ideas private while you make up your mind about them resonates with me. My ideas always have aspects on which I can’t make up my mind, so I can’t tell anyone who will ask uncomfortable (if obvious) questions until I have answer. Once I voice an answer, I will feel a bit committed to it, and that’s a nervous feeling when I’m quite unsure. Having said that, the number of businesses that have been launched in Sili Valley without an answer to “What’s your monetization plan?” remains breathtaking.