The Pause that Refreshes
On the basis of my previous columns, many readers have undoubtedly come to see me as some kind of entrepreneurial action figure -- a guy who performs astounding feats of fund-raising, staff building, and start-up launching not recommended for the folks at home. Recently, however, I severed myself from the company I had cofounded, making way for a professional CEO. That means I'm living out my unem- ployment in the pages of a national magazine, and I predict it will be a humbling experience. Ex-colleagues who think I'm off fund-raising for a new wireless P2P play will read this and learn that, no, I'm just sitting in Starbucks reading the paper. Relatives will start calling about job openings at banks. High school classmates who felt vaguely intimidated by my success will rub their hands together gleefully and look forward to our next reunion.
But I know there is nothing to be ashamed of. There's downtime in every career, even in the careers of serial entrepreneurs. (OK, one venture does not a serial entrepreneur make, but having watched an idea evolve from a piece of paper to full-time employment for 60 people, I can't picture myself returning to Salaryville.) And I fully expect that even as I lounge around the apartment in my underwear and go windsurfing after lunch, I will be continually tapping hidden reserves of strength and wisdom. My friend Eve suggests I take up meditation. Naah, I haven't been in California that long.
I learned from my father that time off from career building can be as valuable as time spent on it. While Dad is not really attuned to the new economy (he once met the founder of a B2B start-up at a party and asked, "How many rooms do you rent out?"), he is my role model in business. In 1982, at age 40, he took a three-month sabbatical from his job as CEO of a family business to indulge his passion, sailing. One day a guy walked over to his boat and said, "Richard, I hear you're the best sailor around, and I want to make you a deal. You teach me how to sail, and I'll teach you how to build houses." They became partners, and my dad eventually launched his own real estate development company on Long Island. "Taking that time off let me see possibilities that I couldn't see before," he told me.
For now, though, I'm not supposed to be seeing any possibilities. Contractually, in fact, I've agreed not to. That happened when I signed my previous company's Employee Innovations and Proprietary Rights Assignment Agreement, required of all staff members as a condition of our venture-capital investment. The six-page document assigns to the company, formerly known as Gazooba and now known as Qbiquity, ownership of all "improvements, inventions, works of authorship, information, trademarks, trade secrets, know-how, ideas" -- and just about anything else that springs forth from my cranium -- until 90 days after the termination of my employment. So my mission, for the immediate future, is to steer clear of creative thought at all costs. If a revolutionary new business model manages to wake me from my intellectual slumber, I'll be pushing that three-month snooze button in my brain.
It's quite a challenge to do nothing and have no ideas in a place like Silicon Valley, where the whole zeitgeist is built on working all the time and grinding out ideas like sausages. Fearful of succumbing to temptation, I virtuously drew down my severance pay and booked a scuba-diving trip to Cozumel, Mexico, which is famous for its endless reefs and majestic spotted eagle rays. As a symbol of my good intentions, I left the address of the Cozumel Internet Café in my apartment and made it halfway to my garage before going back to retrieve it.
Alas, total escape was not in the cards. Sunning myself on the deck of a 30-foot motorboat on the way out to Palancar Horseshoe for my first morning dive, I overheard the conversation of two fellow vacationers. "I founded an ISP in Atlanta and just sold it to one of the big players," boasted vacation guy #1. "Now I'm looking for something new."
"I live in Silicon Valley, and I'm just sick of seeing all my friends get rich on options," whined vacation guy #2, who I later learned was a semiconductor-equipment salesman. "I'd love to join a start-up. In fact, I have an idea in the B2B video space."
Minutes later, at 100 feet below sea level, I bit down hard on my regulator and tried to focus on exotic marine life. But my heavy breathing and plummeting psi gauge could not be attributed to excitement over a glimpse of the elusive toadfish. After rising to the surface, I made a 90-day futures contract with guy number two to discuss his plan over sushi in Santa Clara.
Still jobless, but now in a tan sort of way, I returned to San Francisco and promptly came to a decision. What I needed was a plan. When times were tough at Gazooba, the business plan I had written with my cofounders and honed with our investors served as both the Grail to my Galahad and the blanket to my Linus. A plan suggests direction, which suggests movement, which suggests fewer worried calls from my mother. True, the contract prohibited me from writing any business plans just yet. But I could still create a personal plan for exploration, for growth, for fun.
These days everyone with a plan seems to carry it in a Palm handheld organizer. Anxious to be a-doing, I hied myself to an Office Depot in the South of Market district and laid down some plastic for a Palm Vx. Sitting on my bed back home, I removed the sleek device from its package and stared at it. It was about the same size as the pager on which I receive wind-condition updates for my favorite windsurfing spots. What if I could program this thing to accept the wind-speed data stream? No! Bad Andy! Yanking myself back from the brink, I hurriedly tapped on the date-book icon and began scribbling in my appointments. Lunch with Zen, one of my cofounders at Gazooba. A debriefing with one of our venture capitalists at his office in San Francisco. Coffee with Gazooba's PR guy. All backward-looking, and consequently safe.
Since that day I have fleshed out my personal plan a little bit, although it's still not enough to consume every waking hour. For example, I've signed up for an improvisational acting class on Sundays, mostly because it's scarier to me than jumping out of planes, which is apparently a favorite pastime for people in the middle of major life reassessments. The instructor at Bay Area TheaterSports says the improv class is about "how not to judge your own ideas or those of others." Not that I'll be having any ideas for a while, but when I do, it will be nice to know how not to judge them.
I'll also be following the advice of Lanny Goodman, a consultant to company builders, whom I heard speak at a conference last summer. Goodman argued that companies succeed only when the personal needs of the founder or CEO are met. As I understand it, that means all other measures of success, including shareholder return and employee well-being, flow from the leader's happiness. It all makes perfect sense to me. So in the interest of my future shareholders and employees, I have decided to go snowboarding. If you happen to see me on the slopes, please say hi. But don't ask what my next venture's going to be.
For the time being, I have no idea.
Andrew Raskin is a recovering entrepreneur currently between and betwixt ventures.
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