It's tempting to start a company when it meets the conditions of your "master plan." But sometimes you realize that an idea has visited you and it is now or never...you must either plunge in and take the chance NOW, or watch from the sidelines while someone else makes it happen.
I finally decided to quit my job and leave Salesforce and my wife and I, Roxanne, our first child, Julia was six months old and I came home one day and I said, "I'm going to quit my job. I'm going to start a company." She looked at me and she said, "Are you crazy?"
Todd McKinnon had an awesome job and a well-defined career at Salesforce. So why risk it all to start a startup? Well, it turns out that some opportunities simply won't wait. Let's talk about why.
Why was Todd McKinnon crazy enough to co-found a startup in the middle of the worst financial meltdown in decades? And when all of his relatives and friends, even his wife thought it was a terrible idea? Well, in an earlier lesson of greatness, I shared the importance of Mark Andreessen living in the future, and by living in the future, sometimes it helps you identify a problem that needs to be solved, but before others realize it. And it also helps you build an informed intuition about the early customers and how the market is likely to evolve. Todd was living in the future. He could feel that cloud surfaces were only going to get bigger. He was an exec at Salesforce, which was the first massive breakout success in the cloud. He could see the forces gathering for a whole wave of successful cloud companies. He had deep domain knowledge about what was happening with the technology in the market.
Todd could see a likely future where most software would be built in the cloud because it was cheaper to own and maintain. He saw what the innovative customers were doing with their cloud implementations and had a well informed intuition about what their problems were and would be. And he knew that in a world of hundreds or even thousands of cloud offerings, customers would need tools to manage them all, just like they currently spent tens of billions of dollars to manage their current on-prem systems and software. But there was a big catch. The opportunity to start a great startup didn't really line up with his master plan at that time in his life. And even the most well meaning people around him, the people who loved him even, like his wife, Roxanne, thought it was a bad idea to start a company when he had a great job and they had a great life.
It was the middle of an economic meltdown. Nobody around him thought it made sense. But in Todd's decision to press on, there is an important lesson of greatness. Some great opportunities won't wait for your timeline. So how do you know when it's time to jump in and start a company right now rather than wait for a more comfortable time? What are the signals that the time is now? What are the frameworks for deciding whether you can't wait? And conversely, how do you know when you're rushing into starting a startup when the conditions aren't right? I've noticed three main heuristics. First, having insider knowledge and proprietary insight about a major change event where you have a front row seat. In the case of Todd, this was the rise of cloud computing, and he was spending time at the most important company in that field. Salesforce. Second, knowing the market opportunity and customer needs in a visceral way because you've already been deep within the developing markets.
In Todd's case, he'd already been helping Salesforce solve problems for some of the earliest and most innovative customers of cloud computing. Third, having a vision of what's missing or what will be missing soon, and a big problem to be solved based on your knowledge of points one and two. When Bill Gates first saw the world's first personal computer, the MITS Altair 8800 on the cover of popular electronics magazine in 1975 his first reaction was, "I hope we're not too late." He dropped out of Harvard immediately and camped to Albuquerque, New Mexico where MITS was located. He and Paul Allen developed the first basic for the Altair, which formed the seeds of Microsoft. Bill Gates and Paul Allen instantly grasped the potential of the personal computer because they had been programming timeshare computers at Lakeside High in Seattle. Since they had felt empowered by the opportunity to program larger computers, they could instantly see that personal computers would feel empowering for an order of magnitude more people.
They were living in the future, and that future was about to get a whole lot bigger in size, and they already had deep experience with the basic language. Sometimes the world puts an opportunity in front of you that you're in a unique position to notice and capitalize on before others. That leverage is a unique domain skill you have that takes advantage of something you've seen before others because of your vantage point. It's tempting sometimes to say that you'll tackle it when you're ready, when you have more things in place, when you have your ducks in a row, when the economy is more stable in Todd's case, after you've graduated from Harvard in Bill's case. But the reality is if you plan to start something great, these types of opportunities are extremely rare, maybe even once in a lifetime. After all,
great opportunities won't wait.