The point of “point of no return”

Image courtesy: heritage-history.com
In 49 BC a general sat hesitantly on the banks of Rubicon. A conflict between him and the empire had been brewing for years. He had been ordered by the Consul to disband his army, vacate his post as the governor and report back to Senate. If he followed their orders, he would lose his immunity and would probably be prosecuted for insubordination

Crossing the river would, however, change that. He would be violating an ancient law and committing treason. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind on what would happen if he didn't triumph. He and his army would be executed. Since he had not revealed his intentions in public, he still had the opportunity to turn back and renegotiate his position. A tiny stream of water divided the choices between a potential prosecution and absolutely certain execution

After a long hesitation, he is believed to have shouted out “the die is cast” to his followers. He then proceeded to cross the Rubicon and enter the Roman territory as a public enemy. The Consul’s name was Pompey and the general’s name was Julius Caesar. 

In the context of Startups - the point of this story is not about having the courage or taking challenges head-on. Those are essential virtues by themselves. The point is about not having a fallback option and making it public. It is not that entrepreneurs, who have something to fall back on if their gig doesn’t work out, are not severe. In fact, if they are passionate and determined, they will work as hard as anyone. The point is – for how long?

Being smart doesn’t guarantee they push their way through long term challenges and failures. If their news of “too much at stake” is public knowledge – their level of commitment tends to trickle down to the company culture as well. Their conversations with their partners, employees, customers tend to focus on solving problems and moving forward.

As an angel investor, I have tried my best to avoid people who can walk away unharmed if things don’t work out. In fact, I would pick a committed person who is desperate to succeed over a person with a smart idea, any day of the week. The initial assumptions of how good the idea is or what might work, often change drastically when you start to execute. There are many ways to judge if founders will stay committed to the cause for a long time and not be distracted by the “next big thing” (which might well be so). These are some questions that smart investors tend to ask:

  • Have they been working full time and for how long? 
  • How many total hours do they put in the company as a team (including full time/part time working members) on a daily basis?
  • Have they incurred a setback in their careers as a result of this? 
  • How much personal or family money have they invested in it?
  • Have they overcome painful and difficult challenges before (personal/business)?
  • Did they incur personal debt to make this work?

Crossing a point of no return, in full public view, is a statement of faith and determination more than anything else. I have used it as a trick to force myself to meet ambitious deadlines (having announced it to everyone beforehand). You don’t have to be a hero to fight another day. You can shame or guilt yourself into doing things as well!