Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, July 6, 2020
Rain. Cold. Wind.
They said it was OK to un-shelter, and so I went to Montana on a four-day fly fishing float trip down the Smith River. The Smith is unique in one particular aspect — it has only one public put-in and one public take-out.
In other words, to bastardize Jean-Paul Sartre, there is only one exit and it is 59 miles after you leave the ramp. You can’t just hop off the drift boat and get home for that conference call. Oh, and did I mention that there is no cellphone coverage and no Internet? I am convinced that this trip should be used in the psychoanalytic practice of Silicon Valley technology entrepreneurs, who believe (incorrectly) that the world will stop spinning if they miss an email or a Zoom call.
We all say that we want to cut the cord at times, but the dark truth is that most of us still cradle that damn device close to our heart and soul. Sitting in a drift boat, you are keenly aware that you are not the smartest guy in the room — but even more telling is that the other room at home doesn’t seem to even know you’re missing.
While I was away, one of my favorite companies closed a series A term sheet for $20 million. When I got home, I emailed the other members of the board and the CEO. I thanked them and remarked at how well things went in my absence. The email back from the chairman was “keep fishing.”
During COVID-19 times, it seems the safest place to be is outdoors in the middle of nowhere to hide and nowhere to run, getting rained on. (I need to review the medical literature on when the cure is worse than the disease).
Because the Smith joins the Missouri River 9 miles southwest of Great Falls, Mont., the marketing materials call attention to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who traveled up the Missouri in 1804. This creates inference bias by association. In other words, it allows me for a delusional moment to believe that like the earlier great explorers, I am the bold entrepreneur challenging the environment.
Let me tell you, Lewis and Clark did not have pop-up tents and a gear boat that goes ahead and has hors d’oeuvres waiting when you pull in. I would not call this trip glamping, but there was a tablecloth and silverware at dinner. I poke fun at myself in part because I continue to think about founders and grit. Will the next great companies come from what David Brooks, New York Times columnist, calls a coddled generation? The entrepreneur/founder will tell you that he is passionate and promises that he can scale the wall, but it would be nice if you could see it before you wrote the check (call this rational due diligence).
What I saw from the six guide/workers who got us down the river was a dance that was pure poetry in efficiency. There were five young men and one rock star woman. These are hard-work summer jobs on the river and then for some it’s back to Montana State for graduate school in pharmacology or a master’s in political science. I wanted to help with the tents, the fire, the food, and what I learned quickly is that I would only be in the way. They had a system. And in the pouring rain, you did not want to mess up this ballet.
They also had to manage the care and feeding of seven clients with their very diverse personalities, gastronomic requirements and political persuasions. This cohort gave a master class in customer service and management by objective, just like what you want in your startup.
So, when I look at young companies, I want to see if I can find that same quality of determination that demonstrates an achievement against imposing odds, that demands massive effort when the sun is not shining with the soft breeze of privilege.
Rule No. 666: Lewis and Clark did not have propane.