This is the story of my deployment with the U.S. Army to Afghanistan, and how the first six months of my tour of duty here affected the launch of my web startup, “Nydus Media”:http://www.nydusmedia.com/. When I received the Army’s call in November 2006, I thought that leaving would do a lot of damage to my civilian life, as well as to my budding company. As it turned out, I was only partially right.
I’ve written this post from “in-country.” I can’t disclose where I am in Afghanistan _exactly_, but I was deployed in January 2007 and I will be stationed here through January 2008.
I work in Psychological Operations, or PSYOP, which, in it’s own way it’s kind of like marketing; I create “print products” (a.k.a. propaganda) for a specific target audience in order to illicit a response favorable to the U.S. Government’s goals. I also participate in PSYOP missions. I can’t write much about the missions themselves, but they’re not all that interesting (almost start a riot here; go into enemy territory there; at the end of the day it’s just talking to people and trying not to get blown up in the process).
The biggest thing that living on the base itself has taught me is that it’s not an environment conducive to founding a startup, but that’s an awfully obvious observation. *I live in a room the size of a closet and I code my site from a laptop sitting on top of a tough box.* It is safe to say that being here has clarified my priorities as a founder. I’ve learned important lessons about business, about what it takes to launch a startup, and about myself as a human being.
*Lesson 1: Embrace the Suck*
When things start to get really bad and everything sucks, don’t give up – embrace it and try that much harder to not let it affect you negatively. Within four months of getting in country, I had lost my job, my girl friend of over a year, and despite filing the proper paperwork, my college accidentally forgot I existed. It was at this point that I decided to “embrace the suck” and put all of my energy into reviving my start-up. Nothing but good has come from this embrace and my business is poised to be bigger and better than I ever imagined.
*Lesson 2: Finding My Co-Founder*
Even with my renewed dedication I knew I needed help. I took a week to write up a pseudo business plan and asked an old friend to look it over. He was so impressed with the potential that he decided to come on as my co-founder. Up to this point, I had received little interest in the idea. As a business-degree holder, founder of his own business and equipped with a financial-oriented background, my co-founder filled a very important void in our organization and served as someone to bounce ideas back and forth with. People much smarter than me have written on the importance of a co-founder before, like “Paul Graham of YCombinator”:http://www.paulgraham.com/notnot.html, but this is still worth repeating.
*Lesson 3: You Probably Don’t Need That*
I do all of my work sitting bow-legged in front of a Tough Box I fashioned into a desk. I pay $35/mo for a 96K connection that occasionally works for an entire day. With the re-emergence of the start-up culture after the Bomb, many start-ups think they need Valley offices, expensive chairs, huge monitors and big parties to develop a business or product. This simply isn’t true; everything you really need is inside you already: motivation, dedication and expertise. Save all that cash for marketing and infrastructure.
*Lesson 4: Work With Blinders On*
Now that I’m in this restrictive environment, I realize just how little I got done back home. When I “worked” on GameAscent, I would spend 90% of my time reading feeds, researching services I knew I wouldn’t need for a year or more, Googling for articles comparing MySQL and PostgreSQL, or other such nonsense. Now that I only have a couple hours a day at most to work, I spend 90% of my time actually working and 10% troubleshooting or finding solutions to immediate problems. Work with blinders on and you’ll be amazed at how much you can accomplish.
*Lesson 5: Small Bites*
At home, I failed to properly prioritize and specify my “to-dos”. I picked something to work on and tried to start it. Before long, I would start thinking months and years ahead instead of doing something then. Soon I would overload myself by coding and designing in my head things that weren’t even ready to be brainstormed yet. Before I knew it, the project was so huge I didn’t have a starting point. Now I use “iGTD”:http://bargiel.home.pl/iGTD/ on my Laptop to split tasks into fine-grained to-dos that take no more than 20-30 minutes each. Now those I can do.
*Lesson 6: It’s Who You Know (for better, or worse!)*
When it came time to find a dedicated server to get our preliminary code on, I found out just how true this lesson is. Thanks to an acquaintance of mine, we got access to a managed dedicated server with savings of $250/mo over retail. As an expert Systems Administrator, he also helped secure and setup our server with everything we needed, for free! At first I thought, is that doesn’t prove the importance of networking and relationship building, I don’t know what does.
But this apparent networking “boon” quickly turned into Nydus’s first significant hurdle: our man in charge of setting up the server…disappeared! After unforeseen health issues and an apparent discharge from the hospital, he has completely fallen off the map; even his own company’s staff lost track of where he was. This has created a huge failed expectation; namely, *it has indefinitely delayed Nydus’s deployment schedule.*
All in, *the most important lesson I’ve learned in being deployed to Afghanistan* is this: Be happy for what you have, don’t dwell on the things you’ve lost, and always move forward. We know that turning a perceived negative experience into a learning one will make you a stronger person. *It will also make you a stronger founder.* Which is why, instead of letting this hurdle curb our launch, we’ve decided to use it to our — and to Found|READ’s advantage — by writing about the ups and downs of founding a business, “in country,” from Afghanistan.
The next article in this series will chronicle how we’ve overcome this initial technical hardship and also adjusted our own expectations, while detailing how the business has changed thanks to them. The third and final piece, slated for 6 months down the road, will wrap up these topics by discussing where the company is at the time, where it’s going and what we’ve learned of value along the way. Eventually, I will be able to not only tell, but show what can come from refusing to be slowed down by hurdles and failed expectations.
Finally, I’d like to leave you with this:
_“You know, education, if you make the most of it, if you study hard and you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, uh, you, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.” — Massachusetts Senator John Kerry_
The Senator didn’t get this _quite_ right. At least, I’ve managed to work my deployment to my advantage, like an entrepreneur should. Furthermore, just the other day, my co-founder came up with yet another potentially lucrative web venture we are now exploring. I hope this piece has helped you in some way in regards to your own ventures and be sure to come back for the next installment!
Editor’s Note: Eventually you’ll be able to visit Nydys Media’s first project at www.gameascent.com. Meanwhile, stay tuned for Tom’s next dispatch on the ups and downs of founding from “in country” in Afghanistan, which we will publish tomorrow.