Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, September 10, 2018
Today is the first day of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. I will be in synagogue, and while I have very limited rabbinic skills, there is a story told every year on this day (actually for the past 5,778 years to be exact). In it we might find some entrepreneurial themes. The essence of the Torah story is that God asks Abraham to take his only son, Isaac, for a nice hike up a mountain, and then sacrifice him, as a test of Abraham’s loyalty to God. But this is 2018, and so the rabbis have adapted the story.
In the retelling of the story, it is a beautiful day in the land of Moriah (just east of Palo Alto) and Abraham is scrambling some eggs (no bacon). Abe is the CEO of a venture-backed startup. Suddenly Abe gets a text from VC. It says, please take Isaac, your VP of sales / business development, for a walk on the beach, have a talk with him, and then “sacrifice” him.
Now every CEO knows a little about sacrificing. Sometimes you have to fire people who you told would get to the promised land (with vested stock). Sometimes you can’t get along with your co-founder, so you cheat him out of his shares. Sometimes your wife is overspending on the credit card and thinks your startup dreams are in direct conflict with sending the children to a private school. In our story, Isaac has been having a really rough time closing deals, and the balance sheet reflects his lack of revenue, and VC is losing patience since Isaac has missed revenue projections three times in six months.
To get the additional funding he needs to stay alive, VC suggests that Abe sacrifice Isaac to demonstrate that he truly understands on which side his bread is buttered. Abe loves Isaac (they were roommates at Stanford), but he needs the money, so he gets his backpack and hoodie and he tells Isaac that they are going to an offsite retreat.
In the Bible, Abraham takes a knife. In our story, our CEO takes his lawyer. Isaac has an employment agreement and firing him without cause would trigger a lot of tsuris.
Now Jewish scholars have long debated the biblical story, but no scholars have ever debated the entrepreneurial dilemma that Abe faces. He has no choice, so like Abraham, he takes Isaac (whom he had recruited from Facebook) and schleps up the hill.
Along the way Isaac asks a few questions — like, why is the company lawyer coming along? I thought we were going to discuss the pipeline. Abe tells him not to worry; after all, things had been going really well at the company until Amazon changed its algorithm.
Well, they get to the top of the mountain, and the lawyer, whose billable time started when he left his tent, begins to sharpen the “knife” — in this case a blue Uniball fine point. Suddenly Abe’s iPhone begins to buzz. Abe almost doesn’t pick up, because there is no caller ID. When he does answer, it is VC, who tells Abe to look in the bushes before the lawyer signs the severance agreement.
In the Bible, Abraham finds a ram, and he sacrifices the animal instead of his only son, Isaac. In our story Abe finds a unicorn in the thicket (come on, it’s in the ram family), and VC seeing the unicorn (its value was inflated due to a series C financing using bitcoins) forgave everyone. Abe closed the new financing 30 days later (an up-round).
Rule No. 576: Unicorns are real– when you need them to be.