Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Motorcycles and Startups: Wild Rides

Between having two young kids at home and all the cold and snow we’ve had this winter, it had been far too long since I fired up a bike and felt the wind in my face. This past weekend, I finally had the opportunity to get out on my motorcycle for the first time this year. When I left the house the temperature was in the mid-fifties, which seemed nice and warm sitting still, but on country roads at 50+ mph it was on the refreshing side!

While I was riding around for a few hours, I was reminded of all of the things I like about motorcycles. I’ve also been thinking lately about how much I enjoy working for startup companies. Surprisingly, the two have a lot in common:

Roads less traveled 

Motorcycle on a road less traveled
Ted Simon summed it up well when he said, “Hooray for the motorcycle! It seduces you into getting off the freeways and onto smaller roads and doing things the harder way and being aware of the countryside.”
My motorcycle takes me on roads I wouldn’t otherwise travel. When I’ve got a free afternoon, it’s fun to hop on the bike and try to find some undiscovered routes. When I turn down a new road, I don’t know where I’ll end up.  Sometimes, it’s a dead end.  Sometimes it takes me right back where I started.  But sometimes, I find a great road with smooth pavement, little traffic, and lots of curves. Other times I find a beautiful scenic overlook or a tucked away pit beef stand with the best sandwiches in the area.

Similarly, the roads ahead of a startup company are largely unknown. When new products are launched or different methods are tested, the outcome is often uncertain. Sometimes the new ideas don’t work.  Sometimes new products fail spectacularly! But sometimes, the road leads to a discovery that changes the face of the industry.

Engaged senses

Motorcyclists in the rain
When I’m riding my motorcycle, all of my senses are active.  I can smell recently cut grass or the scent of the new air freshener from the car in front of me. I can feel the temperature drop when riding into a forest or the moisture in the air from rain in the distance. I can hear the wind rushing over my helmet and the sound of the motor chugging smoothly along. I can see an unobstructed view on all sides, with no roof over my head and no windshield to frame the horizon. I can even taste a few bugs that get caught in my teeth because I can’t stop smiling.

In the work environment, I equate physical senses to skills or talents. Startups often afford the opportunity to engage multiple skills and even develop new ones.  It’s rare that any one employee is isolated to just doing one task. In the companies I’ve worked for, I’m always challenged to take on responsibilities that are outside my “job description” or core competencies, but that are necessary to the success of the business.  When I'm fully engaged, the experience is so much more rewarding.


The biker wave
The first time I rode a motorcycle, I suddenly started noticing that all the other bikers were waving at me. My initial thought was that something was wrong. Eventually I realized that they were just acknowledging the shared love of the sport.

Startup companies, and really most small companies in general, typically have a close-knit group of employees. Rather than just being a number or an unfamiliar face, each person knows every co-worker by name.The countless hours spent together striving for a common goal forge strong relationships and solid friendships.


Acceleration and maneuverability

Motorcycle outperforming a car
I’ve never owned any particularly fast bikes, but the motorcycles I have owned are capable of beating the average car off the line when the light turns green.  I have a big power-to-weight ratio advantage because I'm only moving a couple hundred pounds from a stop instead of a couple thousand. Motorcycles can also fit through small spaces (especially in California where lane-splitting is legal) and don’t take up nearly as much parking space.

Startup companies are the same way.  They can bring new products to market quickly because there aren’t layers of bureaucracy to navigate or committees to convene. When the situation calls for it, small nimble companies can make decisions quickly and turn on a dime to pursue a new direction. Often a large determinant in success is simply getting there first.


Building something 

Building a motorcycle
I enjoy working on motorcycles almost as much as I enjoy riding them.  There’s a certain satisfaction that comes from re-jetting the carburetor to gain a few more horsepower or figuring out why a bike won’t start.  I’ve also had the gratification of taking a bare frame, adding a motor, wheels, front end, and other key components and transforming it into a working motorcycle. It even started on the first try!

Startup companies present the opportunity to transform concepts into reality.  It’s extremely rewarding to take the thoughts and ideas of each member of the team and work together to build those ideas into actual products. There’s a satisfaction that comes from identifying needs in the market, and finding ways to meet those needs.

Some people will say that motorcycles are dangerous, and indeed, there’s an element of risk involved. But there’s also a huge upside, and the same could be said for startup companies.  There’s always the risk of failure, and the uncertainty of the unknown.  But many times the journey is much more enjoyable, and the reward and the end of the trip is worth it.

So if you’ve never ridden a motorcycle and you get the chance, even if only as a passenger, why not give it a try? And if you have the opportunity to work for a startup company for the first time, why not take it?  Both will change your perspective, and you might have the ride of your life.

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