Saturday, September 20, 2008

Extreme Bootstrapping - Part 1

I'm a naive idealist, how 'bout you?

In late 2005, my motivations were many to quit a six figure, 25-year, high tech career and launch TRACEe, a venture dedicated to applying technology to tracing lives for good; the good of the individual, society and essentially for eternity. Among the most significant of these motives were to release pent up entrepreneurial energy, to engage in work that kept me closer to home in hopes of shoring up family relationships that had begun to unravel and to produce results with more meaning and direct benefit to society. Little did I know these motivations would draw me into the "underbelly of Austin" narrowly escaping bullets, knives and a family catastrophe.

In early 2006, I thought I was bootstrapping when I joined Bootstrap Austin. But, attending Bootstrap Austin networking meetings does not a bootstrapper make. Submitting a proposal for a Homeland Security SBIR grant doesn't either.

Which makes me wonder...what constitutes real bootstrapping? Does applying for 20 patent claims make you a bootstrapper? How about stumbling on a technology partner willing to lend software for demonstrating your proof of concept - ala "demo/sell/build?" Or leveraging UTA and St. Edwards University internship program resources to validate the business model and design elements of the offering? Or becoming a distribution partner for companies whose products are components within your intended offering? Or freelance consulting in areas aligned with your company direction? Or formulating an advisory board by promising a future equity stake? Or selling the company soul to the Austin Technology Incubator and affiliated VCs hoping to secure "free office space and business mentoring services?" Or volunteering your time to community events hoping to make the right contacts? It turns out that all of these fall short of what I discovered to be real bootstrapping.

Don't get me wrong, many of the aforementioned activities should and are commonly part of a bootstrapper's journey, however, real bootstrapping for me emerged only when faced with an imminent catastrophe in my life: the breakup of my family; my wife of 20 years, 16 year-old daughter and 11 year-old son.

It cut deep to learn that appreciation for the prior 20 years of providing a steady, high standard of living for my family was short-lived as evidenced by my wife's June 2007 ultimatum to "get a real job by year end or divorce will follow." Frankly, this was not unexpected as my wife and our financial situation had been under considerable strain since TRACEe began. What broadsided me, however, was when she relayed my daughter's perspective: "Mom, when are you going to divorce Dad?" POW - a heart punch! You never expect your own child to want you out of their life especially when you've spent the last 16 years loving and nurturing her to young adulthood.

So, what was I to do? Give up on TRACEe and go back to the corporate world fraught with meaningless churn, greed and travel so that my family could return to having all the comforts they had grown accustomed to but at the inevitable expense of a broken family anyway? Or, continue the TRACEe venture that felt like the right path to be on relative to my life, my family and society?

After a few days of contemplation, prayer, counsel with friends & fellow bootstrappers and a coincidental read of The Dip by Seth Godin, the answer was clear: push on, go where most are unwilling to go; survive the dip! After all, how could my friends, family and a person with the moral stature of my wife fault me for doing otherwise? So, push on it was...but how? What could possibly position TRACEe as a viable growth (or at least sustenance) business within a six month window and hold my family together?

That's when the creative entrepreneurial mind coupled with personal spiritual influences kicked in. Without actually realizing it, my subconscious mind, heart and soul were formulating a survival plan. One which surfaced at a most unexpected time - while applying a fresh coat of white paint to our back door on a hot, sunny August day. On that day, at that moment, as that brush stroke spread its film of latex down, with bitter sweet emotion, I surrendered to the core concept of my survival plan - to become homeless via a six month immersion on the streets of Austin, my only companions being the poorest of the poor, my laptop and my cell phone both equipped with mobile, live streaming video, GPS and chat capability. The goals were (1) to explore social networking for the homeless via live interactive streaming of their stories to a global internet audience, (2) drive TRACEe technology development, assets and business partnerships, (3) garner TRACEe recognition and marketing lift, (4) generate modest cash flow and last but not least (5) keep the family in tact. Why not since I was likely to be homeless come December anyway? To quote a friend, "That idea is so crazy, it just might work!"

Somehow this plan incorporated elements of my entire life as if it weren't actually a plan but a destined road map. It leveraged many significant personal, family, educational, work and spiritual experiences whose purpose was now being revealed in tHis "Master Plan," one that had a clear lead up and a promising aftermath for family, company and society assuming I survived!

So, let the real bootstrapping begin!

Please stay tuned for future posts covering how it all played out. Alternatively, please feel free to explore and decipher aspects of it sooner by visiting archived immersion video at my latest alpha site, Homeless Coach. Note: the homeless immersion activity is concentrated within the date range of 3/16/08 to 4/25/08 which can be accessed by clicking the "archive" button that launches a date-based search dialog.

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