One of the perks of getting any form of success with your own company is that sometimes you get invited to events that you normally would not find yourself in. Typically people see your products webpage, read an article or two online about you, check out your business profile and then slide into your DM’s.
I’m your typical mid-30’s Los Angeles native who just so happens to have spent 20 years writing software and working and founding his own startup. I’m not fancy. I wear Vans and I don’t cut my hair. But when you get an invitation to a fancy investor dinner party with people who would potentially fund the rest of your life, you at a minimum get a trim and go out and buy a dress shirt.
A year into my startup I got just that invite. It was a dinner with investors at a very fancy location with expensive meals. There would be many other startups there that also got invited and each company would essentially get to spend an evening further pitching their products over stupidly expensive steak and drinks.
At the time, I was not eating meat, and I don’t drink. But I went anyway. I figured I might not get a chance like this anytime soon and I knew other CTO’s in town going so I’d figured it would make for a story if anything. So here’s the story.
Here’s what I learned sitting dead center in a dinner table surrounded by wealthy investors still wearing my Vans but at least wearing a nicer shirt.
Everyone is amazing
Or at least everyone works incredibly hard to make sure that everyone else thinks they are amazing. It’s hard to tell whether anyone there was actually amazing if I could be honest. I Googled most of them, and the results were scant at best.
As each guest approached and sat down though and the jovial introductory chatter began, I couldn’t help but notice that everyone’s introduction was impressive. Definitely more impressive than mine. At least that’s what I thought at the time.
There were ex-marines who worked in high levels of government now making bullet-proof business suits to “the first investor in ‘name a big company here’” to people that simply were just wealthy without explanation that spent the whole dinner watching baseball on their phones because they didn’t want to be there. And then there was me. I’m not in the military, nor did I invest first in a billion dollar tech company.
But when in Rome. Truthfully I did not take the event overly serious. At least not as seriously as our CEO. I was going to put on a persona that night and make it fun because I assumed that pretty much everyone there was doing the same exact thing.
“What do I do? Well, I’m a bit of a Jack of all Trades really. I help to scale million dollar web applications on distributed networks and cyber security. I do cyber-security”
Translated that meant that I work on a website with alot of traffic and it runs on the cloud. And cyber-security. I think I was the only actual programmer at the table though, so I took liberties with my stories. People were impressed I think. I kept everyone entertained with tales of potential threats to their businesses and how they should beef up their systems. Whatever that meant.
While I took it lightly and had fun with my stories, I think I learned that we all deserve to be amazing. You deserve it too. Just as much as anyone at that table that was doing their best to flaunt their feathers to each other.
I wasn’t lying with my introduction. It’s just that I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. I do my job to the best of my abilities and I go home just like most people do.
Everyone is guessing
I heard alot of predictions that night. “But you didn’t hear it from me” kind of stuff. I winked back with a “gotcha” in reply. Truthfully I probably believed them in the moment. They were supposedly big shots in their field and for sure were more versed in these things than I was.
Everyone seemed to just know things and weren’t afraid to share. I still remember those predictions, mainly about company A buying company B. People were drinking and feeling loose I guess.
It’s been some years since that night and I can safely say that not a single one of those statements became a reality. Maybe in some other dimension that diverged from this one. But here, things work differently.
Now thinking back it just makes me wonder how these people run their companies. For one, it didn’t take much for them to just start announcing things that they probably shouldn’t have. I think more than anything they just wanted to show off that they knew things. But I think more importantly, if they were investing in my company and they were in any way making decisions about its potential future, I’d be worried.
But listen, we’re all guessing at this thing we call life. We don’t know whether route A is the winner or if route S later on is the ticket. So I guess that in a sense I learned that everyone is as confused as the person before them. Even Warren Buffet makes billion dollar mistakes sometimes.
It’s humbling as it brings everyone down closer to equal level. At least in terms of being wrong about things.
Startups are hard
There were alot of ideas thrown around during those 2 hours. Everyone working on world changing projects that would be worth billions one day. Some of the ideas were pretty good I thought.
So good that I made sure to write names down and to keep tabs on a few of them. When I got the chance later on I sat down to research a few. And I wasn’t surprised at what I saw, though I was disappointed.
I guess I assumed that if anyone had a shot at building (or financing) a successful startup it would be someone that’s already coming into the game financially well off. Most of the companies I saw pretty much only had a WordPress landing page set up at best. There weren’t any real products to use just yet. Mainly just email-capture forms.
They claimed that I should sign up to be notified when the product was released, with no real date in sight.
Some of the URL’s just lead to 404 pages. If I were to check right now, none of those companies exists anymore. Again, it’s not shocking as this is the nature of the startup world.
This really did just reinforce the fact that I was no different than them and they are no different than you. Everyone is trying to figure this out. If anything it just made me feel better about my startup. We at least ended up building a completed product that was used by many people around the country.
I think it’s easier to succeed when you are coming at things from the ground up with limited resources. You have more to lose and time is more precious. When you hit certain peak levels of finance, from what I saw, you tend to let your guard down more.
Your predictions tend to have less data points to back them up and whether your new business succeeds becomes a moot point. And I think that might have been the best lesson that I picked up all night.
If someone offers you steak…
And lastly, I had the steak. If you are invited to a fancy dinner party with $100 steak, then I figured it’s only polite to partake and to say thank-you.
It was okay steak.