Burn the ships

19 Aug

One of my all-time favorite movies is “The Hunt for Red October”. There’s something about Sean Connery as a Russian talking with an English Scottish accent. One of my favorite lines from the movie:

“When he reached the New World, Cortés burned his ships. As a result, his men were well motivated.”

Over the last couple of months I’ve had several meetings with aspiring entrepreneurs that are thinking about making the leap and starting something on their own. They come from all walks; agencies, stable jobs at big tech companies, young, old, men and women. Just about every instance they tell me about how they are trying to ween themselves off a client to become a “product company”. IMHO, making the transition from an agency or services business to a product one is hard enough as it is.

You have to burn your ships.

When we started Urban Airship pretty much all 4 of us were jobless. The company we had worked for had run out of money and so we were faced with unemployment or consulting. I had an interim gig for a local advocacy group but the reality we were all on a short timeline. Panic started to set in and I know all 4 of us thought hard about doing consulting as a cushion so we could start the business while still pre-revenue. I firmly believe that Urban Airship would never have had a chance if we’d gone down that path.

Michael, Adam, Steven and I made the conscience choice to go hard at building a business. Technically we didn’t burn our ships but the fact is, we had no cushion. Failure was not (and is not) an option. At the time I thought to myself, what’s the worst that can happen? I’m not going to be homeless. I’m not going to go hungry. I can always find a job in the tech world. That’s even more true today.

Spin down your clients quickly. Ween yourself off the services income and focus 1000% on your product and getting it to market as quickly as possible. Stop trying to “work a deal” that will give you a couple more hours during the day to build your business. The absolute worst thing that will happen is that you will fail.

Be like Cortés; burn your ships.


7 Responses to “Burn the ships”

  1. AdamD August 19, 2011 at 2:01 pm #

    Shoot the hostage! That can be the next post.

    Having tried to keep my ship un-burnt before, I think you’re right on. Nothing is better for starting something than focus. And knowing that your future is riding on that single thing has to be a good motivator.

  2. Clubfoot August 19, 2011 at 2:35 pm #

    Didn’t you guys take advantage of a program from Oregon where you were able to collect unemployment at least? I thought I read something about that in another article. Can you tell more about that and how it helped you? Thanks

  3. Jed August 19, 2011 at 2:50 pm #

    We’re you consulting or contracting? Those two are different. Consulting is pretty cool, you’re just selling advice an you’re not necessarily doing any work.

  4. Herval August 21, 2011 at 7:04 am #

    “Burning your ships” is not only the best way to out yourself in a depressing position – it’s also the fastest route to personal debt. Also, seeing “consulting” as NOT a form of job doesn’t really put it away from the truth – it IS a job (without the security most jobs bring). “a rose by other name…”

    Btw, Cortes didn’t burn any ships to motivate anyone (not as far as they teach us history down here). His crew was composed of cons and thieves, IF he ever burnt any ship (afaik there’s no documental proof of that, as well as the other “burning ships” meme involving Alexander the Macedonian), it was probably to avoid the crew from escaping back to the sea (but accept the only option was to stay there to die)

    • Scott Kveton (@kveton) August 21, 2011 at 7:11 am #

      “Burn the ships” is a risky endeavor; it can mean financial ruin. However, nothing ever worth having was easy to get.

      I didn’t say consulting wasn’t a job … having done it in the past, I know all too well that is IS. I said that trying to do both, consult to build a product or company, is a very tough way to succeed at the latter.

      While I’m no expert of history, I did corroborate the Cortés story via Wikipedia (yes, I realize this isn’t authoritative either):


      Note the part about scuttling the ships. Yes, it sufficiently motivated the men because they were unable to retreat.

  5. Herval August 21, 2011 at 7:28 am #

    Hey scott! The consulting comment was meant for another commenter that said “consulting is cool but contracting isn’t” 😉 (i can’t reply on the ipad, the icon doesn’t seem to work)

    If u take wikipedia’s article as authoritative, u’ll also read he was almost killed by his own “motivated men” (probably more than once). 🙂

    I agree on the “consulting+building” part – i tried this in the past and it’s downright IMPOSSIBLE to have enough room (in my brain at least) to accomodate both at the same time..

    One less dramatic “advice” I’d give is “gather enough money for a year of living below your current standards and THEN start a business. Not burning the ships, but rather packing up and taking the ships to the sea.

    Interestingly enough, there’s a dude who actually agrees with your point (“no retreat”). His name is Sun Tzu, and he does seem to know a word or two about winning wars… 😉

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