What I’ve Learned So Far: Taking Aqaba

Lawrence: We’ve taken Aqaba.
Brighton: Taken Aqaba? Who has?
Lawrence: We have. Our side in this war has. The wogs have. We have…
Brighton: You mean the Turks have gone?
Lawrence: No, they’re still there but they’ve no boots. Prisoners, sir. We took them prisoners, the entire garrison. No that’s not true. We killed some, too many really. I’ll manage it better next time. There’s been a lot of killing, one way or another. Cross my heart and hope to die, it’s all perfectly true.
Brighton: It isn’t possible.
Lawrence: Yes it is. I did it.

-Scene from Lawrence of Arabia

I’ve been in the start-up world as a founder and CEO for about a year now – and unlike what you saw in The Social Network – it’s not as romantic as you would think. Never mind a billion being cool – never mind a million – when you start out, a simple, encouraging compliment seems ‘cool’. Someone who says you might be on to something – someone who says it seems interesting. The little things get you through those early days.

Starting a company has its own peaks and valleys – it’s a hard journey to describe. The best way I have been able to think about starting a company would be akin to crossing a desert – some remote, harsh, unwelcoming and uncharted piece of land. The larger that crossing, the more dangerous, but also the more potential reward that lies on the other side. It’s like the famous scene in Lawrence of Arabia, when they plan to take Aqaba through the desert. The enemy has no defenses – no barriers on the desert facing side – because in their mind, no one can cross the desert (or maybe no one is crazy enough to try!)

However, you don’t cross a desert like that on your first try – it would be suicide. Instead, you start small – cross a small desert, learn the tricks, tools, and tactics, then extrapolate that to a bigger and bigger desert. Find someone who has done it before, and learn from them, and while not the exact same journey, some universal rules hold true. Then one day, you will be ready to finally cross the Devil’s Anvil and take Aqaba. Along the way you’ll need lots of help, you’ll get lots of wisdom and advice, but at the end of the day you have to be just crazy enough to actually try.

I don’t think we’ve come anywhere near crossing something similar to the Devil’s Anvil – but in the small expedition I’ve been on so far, I’ve learned a lot. The first days are the hardest – those days when you could turn around and walk back – the days before you’ve crossed the point of no return. That’s when you look back over your shoulder at the familiar territory and say to yourself “do I really want to do this?” Those first steps are the hardest – because they require the least commitment. I’ve heard that starting a company is similar to building a plane on the way down after jumping off a cliff – but I think in the early days you really have two options – assemble the plane on the way down – or pull the ripcord as soon as you clear the cliff and take the safe way out. Sure, you will never know if you would have gotten that plane working – but you’ll also have avoided crashing at the bottom if you didn’t.

However, as you travel – you learn. And similar to learning skills the skills needed to survive in a desert, you learn the skills required to survive as a company. You learn about building a great team: recruiting them, making offers and hiring, and building a sounding board of advisors and trusted mentors. You learn about sales: focusing on value add, understanding the customer pain, and building a scalable business model. You learn about product: the difference between a feature, application and platform, the value of an ecosystem, the difference between what you think is valuable and what the user thinks is valuable. You learn about finances: that cash is king, that you always spend money faster than you think, and laying a foundation always costs more than you think. You learn about pitching: delivering a solid elevator pitch, realizing that passion is more important than script, and that everyone wants to dream. You learn about investors: some are worth 100x every dollar they put in, some are worth every dollar they put in, and some should be avoided at all costs.

Most of all, you’ll learn about people: fears, hopes, concerns, and aspirations. You’ll see how people are impacted by the media, their peers, and their surroundings. You’ll see how much a small team of highly intelligent and aligned people can get done. You’ll see peoples personalities evolve as they also grow through this journey. You’ll run in to people who help with absolutely no expectation of anything in return. You’ll run in to people who are only concerned about cutting out their pound of flesh. You’ll see the best people can be – and you’ll see the worst.

It’s a roller coaster, that’s for sure – and thanks to a lot of great people, books and practical lessons, I’ve learned more over the last year than I could have ever imagined.

Now, I’m going to see if I can share that with anyone who might be thinking about crossing a desert of their own. I’m going to take my own shot at explaining what I’ve learned in marketing, recruiting, fundraising, pitching, selling, operations, accounting, and everything else – and maybe I can help a few people cross their own deserts when they decide to take that first step. The journey is never easy, and the lessons can be harsh, but the only ones who get to enjoy the spoils on the other side are those who take that first step – and all the others that are required after it. There are a lot of companies out there today similar to Aqaba that think no one is crazy enough to try – until someone does.


-Blair Livingston




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