Finding Signal

“Signal” is my term for the air that allows a startup to breathe, grow and flourish. It’s the guiding light that makes it plain to an entrepreneur where he or she needs to go and how to get there. Successfully finding and using signal is the difference between the 10 percent of startups that succeed and the 90 percent that fail.

I was fortunate to learn about signal and how to recognize it early in my life. My first introduction to the concept came when I was a first-year cadet (a plebe) at the United States Military Academy at West Point. I’ve carried the lesson with me through seven startups and a long career in technology, media and sports. The circumstances of the lesson, however, were humbling.

“Get up!” the two-star general barked at me as I struggled to lift myself off the curb while waiting for a wheel chair at the edge of The Area at West Point. I was just 48 hours removed from reconstructive knee surgery after a soccer injury and standing—at attention or otherwise—was nearly impossible. But in the presence of the two-star, I had to do it, and I winced as I struggled to my feet, hoisting my fresh ankle-to-hip cast on my right leg as quickly as I could. Sweat poured from every pore on my body on that sweltering August day.

Once I made it to my feet, the general demanded the name of my commanding officer, then left, shaking his head in disgust that I had not stood and saluted him faster. My world felt as if it were crashing around me. The surgery and cast were the result of an injury sustained in my first varsity soccer scrimmage. Before the surgery, my parents received a phone call from an academy official telling them that I had been injured, I was about to have surgery and that they were not to come as there was nothing that they could do to help.

After my failure in front of the general, I was eventually wheeled back my room where I sat on the verge of tears for a long time. Eventually, I collapsed on my bed and passed out. That last thing I remember before sleep washed over me was the alarm clock that read “8:16 a.m.”

I woke about two hours later to loud noises outside my third-story window. It was the sound of orders being barked at my classmates as their companies returned from a week of field training. I looked down to watch Alpha Company march into The Area, every plebe covered with mud and carrying a 45-pound rucksack full of gear.

As Alpha moved into The Area, their commanding officer laid out his orders in no uncertain terms: “Unpack, clean and put away your gear. Shower. Ensure your room is inspection ready. Beds will be made to spec. You will be back here in formation in 18 minutes. Move out!”

I watched Alpha Company scramble back to their building only to return to formation 25 minutes later as upperclassmen screamed at them and hazed them all the way into formation.

Bravo Company arrived next and followed the same routine, closely followed by Charlie Company. Both failed to complete the assigned tasks in the prescribed time and suffered the same withering abuse from upperclassmen and officers that was heaped on Alpha Company. It was not a good morning, all things considered, and I knew that my company, Delta Company, was due into The Area next.

At that moment, I received and understood the first significant signal in my young life. I was technically out of the fight as far as the week of field training was concerned but I could still play a huge role in the overall mission of Delta Company. The signal hit me all at once: I could make my squadmates’ beds (complete with painstaking Army-approved “hospital corners” ready for the legendary quarter-bouncing inspection) before Delta returned to the building. That could save the squad seven to 10 minutes per person. As a complete team, we could meet the 18-minute requirement that had been impossible for the other companies.

My leg was throbbing. I was light-headed and hungry. I was also unsure how to make perfect hospital corners, as we had learned how only a week before. But the signal was clear to me, and I had to pursue it. I pulled myself up and made my own bed in about 10 minutes. I moved to the next bed and did that one in eight minutes. The next one was done in six minutes and the remaining seven beds took only five minutes each.

Several times, I almost fainted. By the third bed, I was drenched in sweat, which presented a new set of problems: I absolutely could not sweat on the sheets, and I had to clean sweat puddles off the floor—a tough task when hampered by a full leg cast.

I finished the last bed and cleaned up the pools of sweat with six minutes to spare before my squad arrived.

Delta Company could not believe their eyes when they arrived. They flew through the rest of their preparations and made it back down to formation in 17 minutes. We were the only squad out of 64 to make it in under 18 minutes.

The other squad leaders were sure that we had cheated.  They grilled us mercilessly, but, as plebes, we could say only four things to our superiors:

  • “Yes, sir!”
  • “No, sir!”
  • “Sir/Ma’am, I do not understand!”
  • “Sir/Ma’am, there is no excuse!”

This made it difficult to explain the situation. Eventually, though, my squad leader figured out that I had made the beds. His ear to ear grin confirmed that he approved.

For me, the flash of recognition—noticing that signal and understanding that I had to use it to my advantage—was a critical lesson. To recognize the power of signal and, more importantly, to trust the signal and act on it decisively is one of the most critical elements of the entrepreneurial journey.

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