The Founder’s Journey: It’s a lot like Star Wars… no really

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We live in an age when the founders of many well-known tech startups get to be household celebrities. They are invited onto news programs and late night talk shows, and heralded as role models to inspire current and future generations.

Only, there’s one major issue with how tech startup founders are currently portrayed; the scary, messy ugly bits along the road to success are so rarely talked about.

We need to stop glorifying the ‘winners’, crucifying the ‘losers’ and making people think there are only those two options. Every founder will look like a winner or a loser, depending on what point of the journey you find them. Everything in the middle is the learning part. Let’s talk more about that.

In 1949 Columbia University scholar, Joseph Campbell, created The Hero’s Journey, also known as the monomyth. It provides a framework you can use to see the structure underneath everything from the Odyssey to The Wizard of Oz to Star Wars, and continues to this day to be central to literature, film, comic books and even video games.

This formula works so well because it is a cycle that tests and overcomes the key fears and desires of the human experience: judgement, pain and death in the fear category and love, happiness and belonging in the desire category. In understanding these psychological drivers of our day-to-day decisions we can grow as individuals and — most  importantly — effect change in the worlds we inhabit.

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Yeah, but what does this have to do with startups?

A heck of a lot. The stages of the monomyth can be used to explain building a tech startup from the ground up.

There’s the separation, the initiation and the return. There’s a call to action, reluctance and eventually acceptance of the quest. Along the road there’s trials: temptation, the ultimate boon (once that real hockey stick growth starts to happen), then finally the return to the original existence as a master of two worlds. This whole journey concludes with the hero attaining a level of mastery which affords them a freedom to live in the moment in a powerful and productive way.

This is what a startup founder must do in order to find the outward knowledge and inner strength to evoke disruptive change within industry and even society. By explaining this framework of a quest through various startup founders’ real experience (famous or otherwise) you can learn what you need to be prepared for when you begin the founder’s journey.

Jason Calacanis writes about this in his blog post, ‘The Han Solo Delusion’. Calacanis’ point is that you have to be insane, masochistic and a little bit unhinged by polite society’s standards to even consider making it as a tech startup founder. That might not be the whole story. While many of the barriers to start and grow a technology business have diminished, the human element is still the same. That’s what separates ideas from execution and ultimately, from influence.

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Over the coming weeks I’m going to break down that elusive human element of startups, using the stages of the monomyth, in order to examine how we can better understand various startup founders’ path to growth and success. Through this process I’d love to hear your stories, reactions and reflections about what drives you to want to innovate.