Hold Up On the Start Up

Jan 08, 2008 |Glenn Packiam

The next big entrepreneurial success won't start in a garage.

My mother was the only one who believed me. But I knew that even she was acting more out of love for me than genuine support of my plan.

I couldn't understand why. It made perfect sense to me. Still, the response from people was a weak smile and patronizing eyes.

I had a plan to create a massive complex that included a hospital and a supermarket in Africa. It would treat the sick and help them make healthy choices to sustain their new life. I had been talking about Africa to my family for years. This was my first halfway-concrete plan of what I would start there. Why didn't they believe me?

I was 12 years old.

Over the course of the next decade of my life, I added to that first enterprising dream a long list of books I would write, ministries I would start, schools I would found, and orphanages I would build. Now, as I stand at the threshold of 30 years of life, I have the gift of perspective. Many of my childhood dreams have faded with age. But a few have actually come to pass, though almost without my knowledge and certainly not in the way I had imagined. Hold that thought.

Last week, I stood at the harbor in Plymouth, Massachusetts, staring at the replica of the Mayflower. I was in awe of the courage of the men and women who got on board that boat and crossed the Atlantic bound for a country they had never seen. Regardless of the precise reason they left, they were united by the desire for a new beginning, a new start—dare I say, a New World.

As I flew home from New England, I replayed the images in my head of all the historic sites I had visited, including the much-famed and mostly-eroded Plymouth Rock....

My mind drifted to a trip I had taken several months prior to the West Coast. We had visited some friends in the San Jose area and driven through the Silicon Valley. I remember being strangely excited by the sight of tall buildings bearing the names and logos of companies founded by kids in their twenties....

Something about Plymouth reminded me of the Silicon Valley. It was the sense of historic beginnings, of monumental accomplishment. Both cities, in very different ways, embody the pioneering spirit of America.

The Start-Up, whether our country itself or a company, is an essential piece of the American story. It's not that entrepreneurship is a uniquely American idea; it's just that the celebrated heroes of our cultural lore are men and women with an incredible creative impulse and the courage to act on it. We honor Thomas Jefferson for authoring the bulk of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin for his discoveries and inventions, and Harriet Beecher Stowe for being the unlikely author of a book that turned the tide of a nation. We love the stay-at-home mom who started Baby Einstein, the Harvard kid who launched Facebook, and the pastor of a mega-church who started out in his basement. And all the cool kids agree that Steve Jobs is an outright genius.

But did these people start with a start-up?

Consider this: A recent study of companies backed by venture capital showed that 91 percent of these start-ups were in fields related to the founders' previous job experience. That means these innovative entrepreneurs weren't rebels who started from scratch as much as they were company men who gained experience before they took a risk on their own.

Chip Heath and Dan Heath, brothers and authors of my new favorite book, Made to Stick, compellingly debunk the start-up myth in an article in the March issue of Fast Company. The founders of YouTube—Steve Chen and Chad Hurley—are a perfect example. Chen and Hurley were both former employees at PayPal; Hurley was actually one of their first employees and the guy who designed their logo. To top it off, Hurley is also the son-in-law of the founder of Netscape and Silicon Graphics. How's that for connections?

OK, you say, but what about our heroic pioneers of the ultra-cool and intuitively user-friendly Mac? Didn't Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak start in a garage? True. But before they ever scouted garage space, Jobs was an employee at Atari, and later at HP, where Wozniak was also an engineer. In fact, Wozniak first pitched his idea of a microcomputer to the suits at HP. They declined and have been systematically missing good ideas ever since (Heath and Heath in Fast Company, pg. 61, March 2007).

Here's the point: When you feel the impulse to create something, to be a lone innovator of the next big thing, remember that most founders are the products of large, successful organizations. As Chip and Dan say, "[C]ompanies aren't born in garages. Companies are born in companies." The innovative software company founder was first a programmer for someone else's dream. The senior pastor who started in his garage was first an associate at another church. The boy warrior who eventually became king was first a musician in the king's court.

So, instead of asking, "What can I start?" we would do better to first ask, "Where can I serve?"

One of my youthful dreams was to start a school that would train worship leaders and worship ministries of other churches. I also wanted to be part of a worship team that recorded albums and occasionally traveled. In college, I had a more detailed version of these dreams. I even had a name for the ministry I would start to accomplish these goals. When I graduated, I thought I was putting those dreams on the shelf when I joined the staff of a church in Colorado Springs. I started out as an intern in the worship office with a small monthly stipend and a rent-free room in the home of one of our elders.

But something strange happened as I began to serve at New Life Church. I became the Director of the New Life School of Worship, founded by my boss, Ross Parsley, two years after I arrived. That same year, I and a group of old college friends who had also found their way to New Life formed the Desperation Band to serve New Life's newly launched Desperation Student Conference. The three (soon to be four) albums we've released through Integrity Music's label has given us the opportunity to travel every so often. As for Africa, my wife and I are avid supporters of World Relief, an organization that helps the poor in the name of Jesus through a variety of programs that include medical care, schools and micro-financing.

Odd that the things I dreamed of doing have come to pass not as a result of something I started on my own, but rather as the consequence of serving something bigger than me.

Actually, it's not that odd; it's just not what I had expected.

The tendency for us in our 20s is to hang on to our grand entrepreneurial aspirations and wait until the perfect moment when our shiny new companies or ministries or organizations are handed to us on a silver platter. And in the "waiting," we ignore all the places and people we could and should be serving. We long for that great day when we start our new ministry or company in our garage from scratch, that day when all the energy and vision we've been storing up will converge and success will be inevitable.

The thing is, it simply does not work that way.

As the Heath brothers put it, if you want to prepare yourself for the moment of inspiration, forget trying to find a garage; first get a job! Find a company that represents, at least in a general sense, the kind of thing you want to do with your life. Find a way to serve there. Then, when your brilliant innovation strikes, and it's time to start your organization, you'll be ready.

Until then, hold up on the start up.

Copyright 2008 Glenn Packiam. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.

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