“It’s the real world, homie”

Our CEO Jon Mark Walls reflects on the challenges and satisfactions of being an entrepreneur.

On the opening page of his recent (highly recommend) book “The hard thing about hard things”, Ben Horowitz quotes Kanye West highlighting a fundamental building block of understanding necessary for venturing into the world of entrepreneurship and startups:

“This is the real world, homie, school finished. They done stole your dreams, you dunno who did it”

In many ways I think entrepreneurs are what all teachers secretly want to produce as startups are really nothing more than elaborate science fair projects that somebody figured out how to make money with. In 4th grade I reached the pinnacle of academic achievement for that stage of life by winning the Andrew Jackson Elementary School Science Fair. My project sought to make final, scientific determinations on whether metal baseball bats really did make the ball go farther than wooden ones.

My Dad helped a lot as we tied a string to a ball and then hung it from a low-hanging branch on the oak tree in our backyard. We adjusted it just perfectly to where when we pulled it back, the ball would hit the stationary bats and we could measure the distance the ball bounced off the barrels. It was a cute try at assessing the behavior and material properties of baseball bats. With a few more years and maybe some more insight, I could have turned my elementary school experiment into a product testing lab for one of the major sporting goods companies or maybe even a baseball bat company itself.

Over the past three years I have been leading a team of some of the most intelligent, dynamic and selfless people you can find as we have gone about creating, testing and delivering a political social media platform called GovFaces to politicians from Bulgaria to Britain and from Spain to Sweden. It has been a real world Master’s thesis in political science, computer science and business administration – one that has very literally leapt of the papers and screens of our collective university work.

As cool as it is though, just as Ben Horowitz (arguably one of the most successful venture capitalists in Silicon Valley) points out, it’s the real world and the real world is hard. Blue ribbons, first place certificates and a night out at your favorite pizza restaurant are great as they are tangible affirmations of a job well done. However, the risks were minimal. Failure, at most, would be last dibs on the candy handed out by the teacher to the kids who were nerdy enough to enter something that was, in the end, optional and required a great deal extra homework.

In the world of entrepreneurship risk is the operative word. It is defined most clearly by someone’s willingness to step out of the comfortable and known and into a space where failure is more certain than success. It is not pretty and there is a lot more to lose than a good piece of candy. Thursday night sushi, trendy apartments, steady salaries, retirement plans and three day weekend trips to the city are replaced with ramen noodles, sleeping on couches, emptied savings, and seven day work weeks.

However, when you find a project you are deeply passionate about and a team that you are highly committed to, the terror of ambiguity and fear of losing it all are somehow greatly diminished. They are replaced with the feeling of being a part of something new, that has the potential to impact society in meaningful ways. It is the knowledge that with each step, you are walking on fresh ground discovering hidden gems that no one has quite laid eyes on.

And this is the real world. One in which practice is over, the training is finished, the game has begun and the points count.