In Silicon Valley they call it (in hushed tones) “The Struggle”. According to seasoned entrepreneurs, The Struggle is what it takes to build a global company like Facebook or Apple — the pain, the loneliness, the recurring fear of failure.
As experienced technology investor Ben Horowitz puts it: “The Struggle is when you want the pain to stop. The Struggle is unhappiness. The Struggle is when food loses its taste.” As someone working around the clock to grow my small business, it’s a sensation I’ve come to know all too well.
When we think about hyper-successful entrepreneurs, we tend to see them as lottery winners — they’ve struck it lucky, and if only we’d been in the right place at the right time, it could have been us. The truth is that all great founders — from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg — went through immensely difficult periods, when everything was a huge battle and nothing seemed to work.
What’s interesting is that in California, where many of the world’s biggest technology companies are built, entrepreneurs who have been through The Struggle see it as their responsibility to help the next generation get through the pain barrier.
When Jobs was trying to build Apple in the early Eighties, for example, he was being mentored by one of the founders of Intel. And when the Apple founder was gravely ill with cancer three decades later, he still found time to proffer management advice to the co-founder of Google, urging him to focus and curtail the number of products his company offered.
This generous culture of mentoring in Silicon Valley is often overlooked when we think about why that part of the world produces so many multi-billion-dollar companies but it’s a core ingredient of the success. After all, being a brilliant entrepreneur doesn’t happen by accident — you have to learn how to build a big company, and often the best way to do that is from older business leaders who’ve been through it all before.
For a long time we haven’t had this type of mentoring culture in Tech City in east London, chiefly because there weren’t enough experienced entrepreneurs to go around. Today this picture is changing. There are now 40 technology founders in Europe who’ve built companies worth more than a billion dollars, and hundreds more who’ve built massively successful businesses.
What’s so exciting is that these entrepreneurs are now following the lead of their counterparts in California and supporting the next generation. They’re doing this by providing free advice and mentoring and, best of all, by reinvesting their money in start-ups.
Take Niklas Zennström, for example, one of the most successful tech entrepreneurs in London. He started global companies such as Skype, but having sold those business for billions, he’s now helping the next generation break- through. This creates a positive flywheel, ensuring that more young founders get the guidance and funding they need to succeed, so helping create the next wave of world-beating British start-ups.
Some people think that business is all about sharp elbows and cut-throat competition but the culture of mentoring in Silicon Valley and Tech City shows there’s also a spirit of generosity that’s worth celebrating. None of this will ever make the pain and peril of building a business go away but that’s probably for the best. In the words of Horowitz: “The Struggle is where greatness comes from.”