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Why Those Don Quixote Start-Ups are Great for Your Career, Creativity and Sanity

Dec 5, 2007
Don Quixote de la Mancha was a novel published in 1605. That was before the Jamestown Colony in Virginia and before Wall Street. Don Quixote was a bored, destitute landowner who in his spare time read stories of knights of old and heroes and damsels in distress.

Yearning for a bit more zip in his humdrum lifestyle and needing some fortune, Don Quixote dressed himself up in armor and mounted his super thin horse Rocinante and set out upon the world. Contrasted with his chubby squire or aide Pancho Sanza and Pancho's donkey, the two cut a literary and visual image known worldwide; tall thin, Don Quixote and short, round Pancho Sanza are forever with us.

Don Quixote represented the dreamer and Pancho Sanza the cold realist. Together they stumbled and fumbled their way to adventure; our man Quixote fighting windmill giants and armies of sheep. Sancho managing to just keep our man Quixote from falling in. The figure he cuts thrusting his lance upward toward a windmill epitomizes the quest for quest's sake and the universal struggle for meaning. Or something like that. But just how does Don Quixote correlate to the modern day start up?

First off many start ups are fanciful dreams, much as Don Quixote imagined windmills to be threatening giants. Working some start-ups is the equivalent of dressing up in armor and fighting windmills. Fed by little more than a dream and sometimes little else, those that work in these fanciful ventures will make less, work more and almost assuredly end up going to another one when this one crashes. The danger is that once you actually do one you are hooked. It is a well known fact there is no thrill like a start-up thrill.

But why even try something that has a high probability of failure?

For the experience, stupid, might be Don Quixote's reply in one of his more lucid moments. Start ups sometimes are often made of up a handful of employees comprising the 'team'. This team is it; management, production and marketing all in one package. No where else other than a start up can one find that kind of experience. Peter Drucker, perhaps the 20th century's most eloquent management theorist, made the statement that if a job isn't challenging enough and helps you develop, you should find another.

As I look back over my career I can see that I've been involved with several dozen projects. On some, I was the leader. In others, a cog in the start up machine. Each one of these projects either honed a current skill or gave me a new set of skills. Often these skills were not apparent until after the project or even until years later.

Of course I naively threw myself headfirst into anything I was working on. This is what the pundits call being engaged. Because I was engaged, I cared. And because I cared, I was engaged. Each project became a personal project; one that I owned and developed a strong series of emotional 'bonds' to.

It is because of this engagement and corresponding emotional attachment that the experiences were so strong and the new skill sets so thoroughly learned. Often my colleagues would make fun of me but I didn't care. I was having fun at least and when I saw the dud projects they were working on I made fun right back. It seems I was always working on something interesting, though I can't remember ever doing an exciting company manual...

My colleagues made fun of me because I wasn't making their fees. In hindsight I wonder if there also wasn't a tinge of jealousy. I was always so excited and upbeat and they were always so, well let's just say not very happy. My happiest times in business were working on some absurd Don Quixote windmill project.

And I had some real winners: online auto parts, online blue collar recruiting, farmworker cooperative, depressed area economic development, language acquisition, security and anti-theft development and so on. Most ended up requiring original research and extensive whiteboarding. In fact on one of these projects I whiteboarded for six straight months. Where else could that type of experience happen?

But start ups end. They fold, merge, get bought out, and fade into the business sunset. Sometimes even succeed.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the dance. As time went by, I put more and more of these windmills under my belt. I didn't pay them much attention, but my skills and capabilities had taken a major step upward. And I could tell my colleagues were right there in their comfort zone where they assured their own perpetual stagnation or Drucker's non-development.

To my surprise I had gotten better, much better, and they had not. Where once a colleague and I had roughly the same abilities, five years of doing Quixotic projects had vaulted me way ahead. The funny thing was I could tell and they could tell and it irritated the heck out of them. They even stopped kidding me. But what could I say?

And thanks to my Quixote projects my 'traditional' projects seem to be easier too. After one spends months attempting the impossible, a creative marketing plan or internal reorganization seems so much easier. That's because it is.

I don't mind that on occasion I'm still teased for being Quixote. There are worse things. But I will say this. I wouldn't trade a single one of my windmills for a stack of ho-hum snoozer contracts. Life is just too short to sleep through it...

But seriously, somebody has to keep a close eye on those windmills or they can very quickly get out of hand...
About the Author
Jack D. Deal aka Don Quixote is the owner of Deal Business Consulting. Related articles may be found at http://www.jddeal.com and http://www.freeandinquiringmind.typepad.com
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