Last month, I had the pleasure to attend the inaugural meeting for the Santa Clarita Valley Startup Grind, a networking group devoted to entrepreneurs. The guest speaker was Michael Arevalo, the co-founder of Loot Crate. Loot Crate, for those that are unaware, if one of the fastest growing companies in the collectible and fan-based market. They pioneered the idea of curated subscription boxes that catered to the fan boys and girls. He, and a handful of others, started with an idea at a Hack-a-thon, launched that idea, and spun it into a multi-million-dollar industry almost overnight. It was meant to be a very inspiring evening, but in fact I was not very inspired by it, though I do appreciate all the time and effort that went into the meeting.
Here is the problem. I just don’t relate. You see, the story has a lot of privilege underlying it I don’t want to get into as that can be a dicey topic, even for me. But also, the concept that you could rise so meteorically is like a rock and roll fantasy or a fairy tale. It’s not that I don’t believe it happened, I do. It’s that 70 – 80% of businesses fail in the first 10 years. Of the 20-30 percent that don’t, most do not increase in value by leaps and bounds. Most never become IPOs or get Angel Investors looking for unicorns.
The world runs on stories. It’s that simple. We like to use a term called “cognitive bias” to describe it, but basically it just means, we want everything to be just like a story. We may, for instance, not recognize the achievements of a woman in a stem field because stories have always told us that “girls are not good at math and science,” even though the evidence to the contrary is right before us. And one of the most pernicious stories we have is that of the underdog that ascends. The simple farm boy that saves the princess from the evil dragon and gets to rule the kingdom. Or Rocky Balboa coming back from losing to Apollo Creed (or Ivan Drago) after training and refocusing and having a sports montage.
But we forget a few key factors. The farm boy is always, by definition, the last person to face the dragon. Littered all around the dragon’s lair are the bodies of the brave knights that fell in battle before him. That means, much like business, most dragon killers are unsuccessful and die in the attempt. There is nothing heroic about being the first person and easily dispatching the beast with barely a fight. Those knights all had stories to tell, too. They didn’t end well, but they had stories. And if only they could speak, then maybe we could learn something from them about slaying dragons, or at least how not to be slain by a dragon.
Secondly, the farm boy may be the focus of the story, but he doesn’t do it alone. A blacksmith made his sword. It took years of learning to understand weapon making. It took expensive raw materials to make that sword. It took hours of pain staking labor. It wasn’t a part of the official story, but it was craftsmanship none the less. And that horse the farm boy rode had to be stabled somewhere. It had to be saddle trained and well cared for. Even the farm boy needed the farm to provide nourishing, wholesome food so he could grow strong enough to lift that sword and eventually slay a dragon with it. The point is, the hero didn’t do it alone. He couldn’t do it alone. Every step along the way, he received help from people that were never named in the story of his heroic deeds. People who performed their service then went back to their own homes and families and left dragon slaying to someone who was interested in princesses to begin with.
Stories tell us that we need to be the hero. We need to “aim high” and “never settle for less” and always be looking for growth opportunities. We need to be ready for that moment when we get to become the hero of our own story. Odds are, your small business will never be the hero. But you could be the blacksmith and lead a very fruitful life away from dragons. And you could learn from the mistakes of the failed knights.
For the last few years, I have worked for a small business. My boss started it in a field he was comfortable in and knowledgeable in. He took advantage of any opportunity he could, and he managed to grow it to a comfortable sized office which about 50 employees at its peak before selling it to a larger corporation. Unless you were in the industry, and in the locale, you wouldn’t know the name if I told you. But it put his kids through school and put food on his table. It gave myself and the other Vice Presidents a good salary and benefits, good experience and insight into the industry. And at the time I leave next month, almost at my 10-year anniversary, about half the employees remaining will have been with the company even longer than I was. We could all complain that we did or didn’t get paid enough, of should have had free soda and ping pong tables or whatever, but what we all had was a good, stable job that we could be proud of and paid our bills and got us through the Great Recession of 2007 and the bursting of the Housing Bubble. My boss is, in every way, a craftsman doing his part to help create heroes. His is the story that inspires me.