Wednesday, June 15, 2005

How the Dream Made My Start-Up

Many of my B-School alums would talk about how fortunate I was to go through the start-up experience. It's the entrepreneurial dream that motivates so many. The idea of starting something that can change the world. Who wouldn't want to be a Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Steve Jobs or Andrew Carnegie?

The fact is, deep inside, most don't. Being a titan of industry means to go against the grain. It means seeing an underlying trend where no one else does. Then running against accepted wisdom. Most people who go to business want to jump on an established trend and ride it. Companies provide that assurance that people need. The goals are set from above. You might have a role in it, but your world is circumscribed so you may reach your goal in a comfortable manner. Established companies are based on momentum. This natural momentum of the company pushes it ahead in its already established market. A long as you are moving the company forward along an agreed path, you will do well. If not, life is more difficult.

Starting the company is much more difficult. You have to be a bit crazy. There is that fine line between crazy and genius and the entrepreneur rides it. Most peole are not in favor of your concept. If what you were favoring were true, many others would be doing the same thing. I would joke with my friends, "You are too smart to be an entrepreneur."

That's right, entrepreneurs are not particularly bright in the classic measures of intelligence. If they were, they would see how crazy it is to be pursuing a particular business. It like Kotter's book on the HBS Class of 85. Those that had GMAT scores in the bottom third had the highest net worth 20 years later. These are people who take risks and apply their energies in convincing a skeptical world that their ideas have merit.

My wife and I had similar notions about Aperon Biosystems and the need for a home use asthma management device. We saw analogs to the glucose monitoring, but if we know how difficult it would be to convince others, we probably would have done something else. The medical world is extremely skeptical. It is mostly because you are touching the body. To do that, you have to subject yourself to a whole slew of studies. If a study is designed the wrong way, your product could fail. Or you could run out of money making it succeed.

We went against the grain. Our technology had tremendous promise, but it had not been proven commercially. We had a disease state, asthma, that has a slew of established players with a number of therapeutics. However, the treatment cycle was and is broken. There is no way to measure whether therapeutics like corticosteroids are working. If we can measure changes in exhaled nitric oxide, a marker for airway inflammation, we can complete the feedback loop. People can only take the therapeutics they need and control the underlying condition. Imagine the freedom of having asthma under control. You may have the condition, but none of the symptom. The freedom from pain - the freedom from fear. This is the promise Bhairavi and I saw.

We found a few believers amongst the skeptics and one by one, built our case. Today, after raising another $15 million in an up round, we are now a more established startup. We are now up to $20 million in investor capital. We are getting ready to take our product through the paces to get to the home market where we can have the widest impact. There is a long way to go, but the underlying momentum is there.

Now I am not pretending to be anything like Gates, Carnegie, Kodak or any of those great titans. We are not even close to that stage, though I do see great potential in the asthma application of our technology. This whole game is about looking at the world and looking for places to change it. Once you have a base case with incredibly deep research, it is about believing in your solution and lining up all the resources necessary to make it happen. Like the all-Pro running back, you have to be willing to sacrifice your body to push the ball forward against all odds.

This is the key - believe in your dream and then throw you mind, body and soul into making it a reality.

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