The Call to Adventure

Photo by Matthew Sleeper

According to Joseph Campbell, the academic and mythologist, a vast swathe of human stories follow a common pattern known as “The Hero’s Journey”. This so-called monomyth involves a hero who goes on an adventure, faces trials, overcomes them and returns home transformed. It can be seen in the stories of Odysseus, Star Wars and the Hunger Games. Now I haven’t actually read any Campbell, but I have watched a lot of TV by the comedy writer Dan Harmon who likes to bang on about him.

In Harmon’s take on the hero’s journey, the opening act starts with the protagonist in a zone of comfort and familiarity. However, “something ain’t quite right”. The world of our hero isn’t perfect and is out of balance somehow. This is when they are faced with “The Call to Adventure”. In order to change their world, the hero must step out of their comfort zone and go on an adventure. Fortunately, our protagonist is not alone. They receive “Supernatural Aid” from a helper that will aid them in their quest.

Why am I writing about story structures? Well not to put too fine a point on it, my life has recently started falling neatly into this pattern (albeit in a far less grand and non-“noble saviour of all mankind” sort of way).

I have spent the last four years working as a consultant, doing various mathsy, computery, finance things. This has been a comfortable, well-paid life. I got to travel around Europe being put up in nice hotels with all expenses paid. However, something wasn’t quite right.

The work was reasonably interesting for a nerd like me but it wasn’t groundbreaking and had stopped being stretching. I was on a linear career ladder that in seven to ten more years could lead me to making partner. I was headed down the safe sensible path to a prosperous life that parents justifiably want their kids to follow. But I hadn’t set out to pursue a comfortable life, I want an interesting and remarkable one. I want to at least try to make the world a better place. The problem was, due to the travelling and long hours, my job had become my life and my comfortable safe career didn’t excite me or make me happy.

I fully recognise that I have been exceptionally fortunate and am in a place of great privilege. It is a true “first world problem” to complain about having too comfortable a life. And it’s exactly for that reason that I want to use the skills and position I’ve been granted to make a positive difference in the world, not just to make my own life more pleasant (or build yet another dating app). However, in order to change things you have to take risks.

At the end of 2016 I received “the call to adventure”. At a conference in Oxford, I saw Matt Clifford, the co-founder of the now prestigious Entrepreneur First programme, give a talk. His thesis (which he has summarised here) is that people who want to have the biggest impact on the world should build a technology startup. Conveniently, Entrepreneur First helped people do just that.

EF is a tech startup incubator and accelerator programme that helps people found and then grow deep tech companies. However, unlike other programmes, they don’t require you to already have a founding team and a precise product or business proposal going in. They help you find a cofounder in your cohort and refine your business ideas.

I’m not convinced of the universality of Matt’s advice, but for my skill set it certainly seems my best shot. I really believe in the power of technology to solve real problems and improve lives. It can help us work together, gain a better understanding, empower us to improve our circumstances, reduce waste, and free up our time for the better things in life. As much as I enjoy Black Mirror I don’t share its pessimistic view on tech.

I had always entertained the notion that I would start my own company at some point later in life when I would actually “know what I’m doing”. I wasn’t a wheeler-dealer, Alan Sugar-like entrepreneur. Neither was I a genius technologist discovering the latest innovation in my dorm room. So until that talk I hadn’t seriously considered that the label of tech entrepreneur could potentially apply to me in the here and now.

After the talk I met the excellent Alex Foster, who had started a company through the programme, and Elspeth Lawson, who works for EF. They convinced me that rather than getting a job with a startup I should just apply for the programme proper. I did and was promptly rejected.

The seed had been planted though. It took root when I subsequently visited Silicon Valley with Oxford Entrepreneurs and met people with similar backgrounds to myself who’d built successful companies. The only thing that separated me from them was they’d taken the risk and been persistent. I’m in my late twenties with savings in the bank and no family commitments. What excuse did I have for not trying? My studies in risk management told me that my downside was limited and my upside wasn’t.

The importance of persistence came to the fore when EF got back in touch asking me to reapply. The second time, with a far stronger application from a year of serious contemplation on tech entrepreneurship, I was successful. “Supernatural Aid” has been proffered. I have been granted a place on the tenth cohort of EF starting from April 2018.

The best explanation I’ve come up with for what the rest of my year will entail is again inspired by watching too much TV. It will start with the entrepreneurial equivalent of First Dates, followed by The Apprentice and then Dragon’s Den.

The first three months will start with “speed dating” fellow EF-ers to find a cofounder to work with. The relationship between cofounders is integral and the parallels with marriage are rife. However, unlike with romantic relationships there aren’t TV shows that set you up with an entrepreneurial partner. It is really hard to find someone with complementary skills who is capable and willing to found a company with. EF play the matchmaker and help us form, as well as break up, founding teams.

Once we have a team we will refine and prove our business idea. This will be through building MVPs, testing market hypotheses, and find prospective customers and partners. Thus begins the strenuous task of starting the ball rolling and getting the company off the ground. At the end of the three months of entrepreneurial escapades we must face our own equivalent of The Apprentice’s Claude Littner and go through the investment committee of Entrepreneur First.

If we pass muster, EF invest in the freshly incorporated startup. After more development and scaling we face the Dragon’s Den of Demo Day where one of the founders presents the company to a large room full of top VC and seed investors (with yet more online). Then, hopefully, with seed investment the company launches to sink or sail.

I’m super excited to heed the “call to adventure” and attempt to build an important, world-improving company. I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone and quit my job. I’m jumping out of the plane and trying to build a parachute on the way down. Wish me luck.

Photo by  Lane Smith

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien

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