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Thriving Against the Odds


Furthering the likelihood that the end of the world is lurking just around the corner, November 2016 marked the month where the Chicago Cubs broke their 108-year-long World Series curse, and Donald J Trump was declared the 45th president of the most powerful national on Earth. While perhaps the subject of Trump’s presidency and the effect on Canada’s tech sector would be topical subject matter, my attention instead sprung to a different commonality between the Cubs and Trump – their ability to thrive with the odds stacked against them.


This practice of waging war against probability is a daily ritual to the 6,000 or so tech start-ups that emerge in Canada each year, and a leading cause of demise to the 4,800 of those that are going to fail before filing their first tax return. It’s sometimes easy to forget this figure when you live your life in the bubble of optimism and excitement that engulfs the start-up scene, whilst trying to pretend that the bubble isn’t your only source of air and perpetually on the brink of bursting.


Cash flow issues affect all business at one time or another, but starting a tech company is like playing the game on ‘hard mode.’ Behind most of these companies is a product that took many months or years to develop, during which time the company’s sole source of income was external investment (and maybe the odd government grant). Courting investors during the fundraising process often ends up encompassing the entrepreneur’s daily role for months at a time, leading into a vicious cycle of constantly being pulled away from their business yet being held to stern necessity of growth and traction. This is your life for two years, if you’re lucky.


Few understand what it truly takes to win at this game. While there are always exceptions to the rule, the remaining 99% of the population are forced to embrace sacrifice as the fuel that keeps the fire alive.  The things most people cherish dearly – relationships, sleep, free time, financial security – these become distant afterthoughts, looked back upon fondly while the dim glow of your laptop illuminates your office, long after the rest of the world has gone to sleep. There’s a reason why the archetypal tech entrepreneur is obsessed with productivity, positivity and personal growth – they have to be.


Recently during some extenuating circumstances, a colleague of mine declared, quite matter-of-factly, “you know, work isn’t everything.” In most cases, I would completely agree with him. But building a business isn’t ‘most cases.’ Every bit of development is extremely deliberate and it won’t have its own momentum to coast on until years down the road, necessitating an ‘all or nothing’ approach. The harsh reality is that success is scarce in this line of work and those that find it did so because of risk and sacrifice.


So why do we do it? Ironically, there’s a strange sense of freedom in the madness. Or perhaps it’s madness itself!