Maintaining startup energy –or– learning to unicycle together

June 10th, 2010 by Terry Jones. Filed under Uncategorized.

Image: ibikenz

Learning to unicycle is really hard. The first time you take hold of the seat of a unicycle you immediately appreciate how impossibly difficult riding one will be. It feels like it shouldn’t be possible, and if you didn’t know by example that it is, I suspect very few people would seriously consider it.

Unicycles have so many degrees of freedom – it’s hard enough even to lean it against something static without it falling over, let alone putting yourself on top of one, with no means of support. As opposed to something like juggling, where any idiot can toss a couple of balls and probably catch them, there’s not much of an in-between zone in unicycling: either you can or you can’t. It’s always a pleasure to hand your unicycle to a loud-mouth passerby who comments how it can’t be that hard, etc.

A funny thing about learning to unicycle though is that you can have two people, neither of whom can unicycle alone, and put them side-by-side holding hands or shoulders, and the two can ride. It’s a great way to get beginners riding and learning together, and in a way it’s remarkable – neither person can ride alone, but they can reliably do it together without much trouble. The reason is that while they’re both having a hard time and are very often unbalanced or somewhat out of control, they’re very rarely falling in the same direction at the same time.

I think that’s a great analogy for how people at a startup can support one another in the very early stages. There are so many degrees of freedom – so many ways in which things can go wrong, from the mundane to the spectacular. Most apt, you may be low on energy or feeling negative or even doomed, but probably not in the same way or at the same time as your partner(s). Together you might each be able to do something that you couldn’t have done otherwise.

I was describing this analogy to Esteve Fernández (not for the first time), Nicholas Tollervey and Jamu Kakar over lunch yesterday, and decided to finally write it up. Without knowing it, Esteve kept me in a positive mood quite a few times as we spent 18 months building FluidDB. Thanks 🙂