The Trough of Sorrow

June 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

I recently read an article where Paul Graham talked about the normal up and down cycle of a start-up.  He explained the roller coaster with this chart: http://adam.heroku.com/past/2008/4/23/the_startup_curve/.  What I love most about this chart is explains the hardest part of a start-up. The period least talked about…the period of stagnation. Paul calls this the “Trough of Sorrow.”

Entrepreneurs are good at handling the ups and downs.  They are wired to know how to enhance the ups and fight through the downs.  But they are not wired to handle stagnation.  They get antsy.  They try new things.  Anything to break through.  At a certain point doubt can creep in, and potentially depression depending on how long the Trough of Sorrow lasts.  But good entrepreneurs, with enough capital to sustain the fight, always push through the Trough.  However, to non-founder employees, the Trough can appear to be a death knell.  It just seems worse than it is.  The grass on other people’s hills appears greener.

This weekend, I thought of a great analogy to explain this period…The United States of America.  I was watching the movie True Grit, and I was thinking how crazy a time the late 1800s were for the US.  Major cities were completely lawless.  Organized crime controlled entire towns.  Infrastructure was hardly built out.  Communications were slow. I kept thinking how difficult it must have been to live during this time.  How easy it would be to wonder whether it would ever change.  Whether the quality of life would ever come close to matching cities in Europe, which were controlled by a monarch and his army.  How the grass must have seemed greener in other parts of the world.

We all know how the story of the US ended (at least as of 2011).  I think we got to our current point mostly because the country’s inhabitants didn’t have many choices but to fight through and make a better life.  Holding this difference aside, I still think that the analogy is relevant.  Almost all start-ups go through a period of wondering whether they will make it big.  Very few act like those shooting stars we see in the press.  Most have an initial euphoric burst, followed by a slowdown and then the Trough, until there is a breakout.  So when my next start-up inevitably enters this period, I find it comforting to know that I am in good company.

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