- Wise Words -
"Building a foundation" sounds better than it really is
by lewis gersh
Have you ever built a foundation? Not a metaphorical one — a literal one.
I have (on a plot of raw land in upstate New York). Let me tell you what it’s like.
Chaos is the norm (get used to it)
Before you build the foundation, you have to pick a location. It’s easy to find reasons not to build in most places. Nothing ever seems quite right. But you don’t want to settle for an inadequate site because you’ll have to live with those inadequacies every day.
Then, when you finally find the best available spot for whatever you’re building (in the real world there is no ideal location, just “best available”) and stress over all the details — like which way the sun is going to hit it, which orientation provides the best views, how the driveway will approach, where the main foundation forges with the garage, etc. — what do you do next? You rip a hole in the earth and traumatize the surrounding environment, destroying (at least for now) much of the appeal the location held in the first place.
Then, for what feels like months on end (even if it’s only a few weeks), you’re dealing with contractors and building material deliveries and weather forecasts (many of which turn out to be wrong). Finally, when you have everything framed and you have all the necessary materials and equipment on-site, you pour the concrete.
And then? You do nothing. Because you have to wait about a month for the concrete to cure. And, during that time, things that you have no control over can go wrong. The ground can shift or settle, for instance, and cause a major crack. (So many things can go awry, in fact, that there’s actually a Foundation Crack Dictionary.)
And even if there are no further complications, what have you got when all is said and done? A concrete slab on bare ground surrounded by what looks like a war zone. You’ve got piles of crap everywhere from all the packing materials and waste and slag and detritus. When you step back and look at it, you’re as likely to feel a sense of terror as a sense of pride. My god! What have I done?
And only now is the time to begin building the actual structure you envision.
Getting in on the ground floor at a startup
I tell you this because you often hear people in the startup culture speak with great reverence about “building a foundation.” (How often? A Google search of “startup” + “building a foundation” yields more than 300,000 results.)
Well, if startup gurus wanted to give prospective entrepreneurs and investors and employees a realistic expectation of what’s in store, they would change their tone, if not their tune. Because building a foundation of a company is actually a lot like building the foundation of a building.
It is hard, stressful work filled with moments of self-doubt. You’re often so consumed with the details of the moment that you can’t see the long view through all the stirred-up dust.
And here’s the truly harrowing part. Many companies need their first 100 employees just to finish the prep work to pour the foundation. After you pass that 100-employee milestone and pour the foundation, you are constrained by the resulting footprint. You can only hope that the foundation will be solid enough to support the weight of all the decisions that will now be resting on it.
Even many of the big brands that have compelling origin stories couldn’t see the forest for the trees at the beginning. (And then they had to cut a lot of those trees down to clear the site for a foundation.) Like everybody else, they were just struggling to get a product to market. Their tidy company histories are revisionist histories.
That’s understandable. Savvy marketers accentuate the positive, particularly with their consumer-facing messages. But if you enter the startup culture expecting a nonstop joyride like the one depicted in “Jobs,” you’re in for a rude shock.
Not that the startup experience isn’t worth it. It absolutely is. Just know going in that there will be many harrowing twists and turns along the way. If you have the mental fortitude to cope with them, then fasten your seatbelt, strap on your helmet and prepare for the ride of a lifetime.