For every person who comes into my office with a good idea I respond, “Don’t worry about your failure, worry about your success. If you fail, you move on. But if your good idea pops big time then trust me there will be three PhDs from Stanford sharing a cheap apartment in San Jose working around the clock to beat you. They’ll be eating Ramen (OK, I usually say Taco Bell, but that’s just me …) every night and saving their pennies to pour into the company.” You’ll get over your failed company. You’ll never get over coming up with a great idea, getting initial traction and watching someone else get all the glory (and financial returns).
It may be unfair, but it’s the reality of capitalism.
This reminded me of an experience I had back when I was fighting forest fires. It was the Summer of 2004, just before I moved to New York and started studying at Columbia. My group, the Modoc Interagency Hotshot Crew, had been deployed to Alaska to fight a half-million acre fire just outside of Fairbanks. Our mission was to keep the fire from burning down the city.
When you have a 500,000 acre fire burning in rugged terrain, you can't just whip out a big hose and spray the thing down. Instead, you conduct burnout operations–essentially, you light backfires off of a perimeter of roads and bulldozer lines that burn all the unburned materials inside the perimeter and stop the fire dead in its tracks (cuz there's nothing more to burn). At least that's the theory.
My boss was a guy named Greg Keller (aka the Old Man), an old hotshot from way back. Burning was his favorite thing in the world. If he was in tech, imagine what Steve Ballmer would be like if he dropped everything and became the project manager for Google Wave. He was confident, experienced, and aggressive.
Three days into our deployment (we'd work 16 hour days for 14+ days straight, then get 2 days off before starting over again),the Old Man pitched the fire's senior management on a major burnout operation that would keep the fire out of Fairbanks. The weather forecast showed 4 days worth of perfect conditions. And of course, he volunteered us to lead the operation.
The fire's Management Team balked. No way. Too Risky. If we couldn't hold it, they said, the fire would make a B-line for Fairbanks.
Everyday for the next seven days, Greg begged them to let us burn. After seeing six days of good weather go by and realizing the forecast was for a dramatic worsening of conditions that day and then the next few days after that, they relented. "But go slow," they instructed him.
Slow, however, was not in Greg Keller's vocabulary.
And so we burned. On one side, there was a forest filled with 50 foot, tinder-dry spruce trees behind which was a massive fire; on the other, a forest of similar dimensions, behind which was the largest town in Alaska. Separating them as a dirt road. We were on that dirt road.
Slow lasted 20min.
"Alright guys," the Old Man commanded over the radio, "it's time to put the hammer down. Push it."
And so, the four guys who had been walking slowly in the woods, dripping fire here and there, broke into a sprint, leaving a trail of lit gasoline behind them. Pretty soon, there was a wall of 50-75ft flames along the road. My job was to watch the stuff that wasn't burning and wasn't supposed to burn.
Radiant heat poured across the road. Goddamn, i thought, i need some cover.
Looking up, I could see a giant smoke column forming. As long as it was pointing toward the main fire, we were in good shape.
A few minutes later I heard the distinct pitter-patter of rain drops hitting the ground. Intense, hard rain. That's weird, I thought. Something hot landed on my neck, then my ear. "Oww fuck!" I yelled. My skin was burning.
Shouts of "Fire!" came from up and down the line. When I looked up, I could see 20, maybe 30 little fires just in my immediate area. The wind had shifted. Our column was pointing the wrong way.
I ran around desperately trying to put out each little fire. In the distance, I could hear the thwap-thwap-thwap of approaching helicopters. Chainsaws revved. A water-dropping blackhawk sprayed us down. But pretty quickly, the little fires became bigger fires–too big to put out by hand. Smoke filled the air.
"Let's get the fuck out of here!" someone yelled. And so we did.
Over the radio, a helicopter pilot muttered "Modoc really fucked this one up. Say goodbye to Fairbanks."
Our reinforcements proved useless. The fire went on a tear, ultimately burning into an old, unmarked dynamite cache. The explosion shook my bowels and knocked my Captain to the ground. No one was hurt, luckily.
The town didn't burn and I didn't die, luckily, but we both came close. At the end of the day, the Old Man gathered us 'round and gave a little speech that has stuck with me ever since.
"There's seeing opportunity," he said, "and there's seizing opportunity. A week ago, we saw a great opportunity, but we didn't seize it. We waited. And waited. By the time we decided to act, the world around us–the weather, the circumstances–had changed and the opportunity that we had originally seen so clearly was gone. But we went for it anyway and fucked ourselves in the process."
"Let this be a lesson to you: If you see an opportunity, you gotta seize it. You gotta do it right away. Because if you don't, it will disappear, and no matter how hard you try, you can't get it back."