Fishy Founding

10/24/12Follow @joechung

I have a confession to make. Much to my profound personal surprise, I have become seriously addicted to fishing. Mind you, not the idyllic fly casting on the Scottish Weirs clad in tweed over waders sort of fishing. We’re talking big tuna fish into the hundreds of pounds trolled up from the depths of the North Atlantic. The sort of fishing where you actually consider the consequences (and hopefully take some precautions) of being pulled overboard because it actually happens from time to time.

Last November, as my fishing buddy and I were scraping the ice off the windshield of my boat in preparation for heading out to sea before sunrise, I actually said something like, “Holy Sh-t—this is insane. It’s November. It’s five in the morning. It’s pitch black and freezing. We are actually scraping ice off the F-ING boat in the freezing dark to go fishing, and there’s like an 80 percent chance we’re going to come back with nothing. WHAT THE HELL IS THE MATTER WITH US?” My friend, a fellow serial entrepreneur, stopped scraping long enough to say, “That’s easy. We’re addicted to a high risk / high reward activity. In fact, the high probability of getting skunked is exactly what makes it exciting to give it another try. It’s just like doing a startup.”

Aha. Now we’re getting someplace. It doesn’t take the Brain of Britain to see the deep metaphor mine to be exploited comparing fishing and startups, but as someone even more addicted to starting companies than trolling for pelagics, I couldn’t help but consider some of the more interesting analogies as we bumped along for the next several hours. One thing about fishing—you certainly have plenty of time for musing!

To start with, I’ll recall the 3 “rules of fishing” that I devised after getting completely skunked several times with my sons and fishing compatriots when we were all just starting to learn.

1. You can’t catch fish if you don’t go fishing

I know. Kind of obvious, right? But this simple truism got us up and out the door on some days when we were feeling pretty discouraged about the prospect of walking back through that door empty handed. I see a great deal more applicability as applied to the startup world, where it’s pretty common to encounter lots of pretty earnest folks who really really seem to want to do a startup, but have yet to leave the dock. At some point, you have to stop contemplating and analyzing, cast off your lines, and get yourself away from safe, solid land. Your odds of success, especially the first time out, may not be great, but I can guarantee you will fail to create a successful startup if you never even try.

2. You can’t catch fish if the fish aren’t there

Again, a simple truism, but one well worth considering when investing the time, fuel (not cheap!), and risk involved in a day of tuna fishing. You can have everything just right: the right lures, the right colors, the perfect presentation, etc. etc., but if you don’t actually get those hooks within sight of a tuna, you will most definitely strike out. The analogous principle for startups is that your business must fulfill an actual market need. I’ve seen a lot of startups that outwardly seem to be doing everything right: raising angel money, scrumming, iterating, shipping, pivoting, etc., but they aren’t getting any nibbles of data that indicate significant value to customers or partners.

To stretch the metaphor further, when we head out to sea we typically go armed with as much intelligence as possible about where the fish were yesterday. The problem is, of course, that just as in the stock market, past results do not guarantee future performance. Tunas can swim up to forty mph in short bursts, but their normal “idle” speed is about five. So a school easily can (and do) move fifty miles away from yesterday’s sighting which can turn a banner yesterday into today’s longing disappointment. Likewise, startups tend to cluster around yesterday’s latest and greatest successes. Look at the number of … Next Page »

Joe Chung is Managing Director at Redstar Ventures, a company that creates companies, taking them from the earliest stages of ideation and growing them through their first institutional funding rounds and beyond. Joe tweets from @joechung. Follow @joechung

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  • Chris

    I don’t understand the pleasure of inserting a stainless-steel hook in the throat of a sentient animal, hanging it by its own weight out of the water, tearing the hook out, and throwing it back in.