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How Being a Tourist in Rome is Like Creating a Startup

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-Brandon Hinkle/

I’m currently nestled uncomfortably in the middle seat of an American Airlines flight, returning home to Chicago from Rome, Italy.  Reflecting upon my trip, and desperately trying to block out the screaming baby two seats away from me, I started to realize how many parallels there are between creating a startup and being a tourist in Rome.  Sounds strange, I know. But hear me out:

  • No fear.  Don’t be afraid of unfamiliar territory; it’s better to be lost somewhere beautiful than bored somewhere safe.
  • No regrets.  Even if you’re tired and want to go to bed, you won’t get this time back so grab another cappuccino and keep exploring.  At the end of the journey you’ll never wish you would’ve rested/slept more.
  • Reflect.  Take a moment to realize how lucky you are to be doing what most people only dream about.  Trying to visit five cities in seven days can be exhausting.  Pulling all nighters on a startup that produces more expenses than revenue can be frustrating.  But take the time to reflect about how lucky you are to be in the moment most people only experience in dreams.
  • Be an ambassador.  Create relationships with the locals and fellow journeymen; you never know when your paths will cross again, and you can never have too many allies worldwide.
  • Be in good company.  Surround yourself with people that make good decisions and share your same passion for adventure; avoid moody, emotionally inconsistent people that have a history of making bad decisions and crack amidst uncertainty.  In foreign countries, an unruly travel companion can increase the anti-American sentiment and ruin the atmosphere of the journey.  In startups, volatile personalities will create tension and ruin the culture you’re trying to create in your business.
  • Don’t run out of cash.
  • Talent can be more valuable than experience. It’s common knowledge that Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which was painted in a style known as fresco – a painstaking process that uses dry paint powder & wet plaster and requires decades of experience to perfect.  But it’s not widely known that it was the very first time Michelangelo ever tried to fresco.  Think about that for a moment.  The Pope picked Michelangelo, at the time a relatively unknown, over Rafael (a very well known painter and fresco-ist) because the Pope recognized Michelangelo’s talent. The Pope took a risk that was clearly exceeded by the reward.  Similarly, many successful entrepreneurs I know took “risks” on people that lacked experience but had extraordinary talent.  Anyone put in a position long enough will have experience, but you cannot teach someone to have talent.  Find talent and hold onto it.
  • Put yourself in your customers’ shoes.   In sharp contrast to impressionist painters, whose seemingly sloppy work is best appreciated from afar, Michelangelo was notoriously detailed in his work.  The Sistine Chapel was painted in two phases/halves and the first phase was vintage Michelangelo…the figures in the paintings included subtle facial hair, the clothes had frayed strands of cloth and other detail that could only be seen up close.  When Michelangelo first viewed his work from the ground level, he noticed something interesting; his painting was too detailed.  The characters were perfect, drawn to scale and mirrored the human figure in every detail.  But he realized many of the characters looked too small from afar and that nobody would ever be close enough to the ceiling to appreciate that kind of detail. So the second half/phase of the ceiling included figures much larger and less detailed as the first phase.  The most popular and photographed sections of his work (e.g. God touching Adam’s finger) was from this second phase.  Michelangelo had the talent to create photographic-like detail, but the wisdom to recognize that wasn’t necessary for this particular work.  He could get twice as much done in half the time without losing value.  Be cognizant of your customers’ perspective and use your time efficiently.  If you realize the target audience could benefit from a simpler design, have the flexibility to change the product.
  • Have a tour guide. After getting stung with various “tourist taxes” (typically prefaced by, “ah…for you, American, very special price…”) we finally agreed to pay for a tour guide for the second half of our trip.  The tour guide’s years of experience and credibility among the locals proved to be invaluable for us as we worked to maximize our time in Rome.  Likewise, credible advisors are invaluable for every startup.  They’ve worked with others who have made many mistakes and will help you avoid similar pitfalls.
  • Be decisive, or get hit by a bus.  Walking around in Rome, there are virtually no street lights or traffic guides; to cross the street you must move quickly and decisively to avoid getting hit by cars, busses, and scooters.  You’d have to visit Rome to truly understand this dynamic, but believe me; hesitating halfway across the road could be fatal.  The most successful entrepreneurs I know are extremely decisive.  Even if not always the optimal path, strong entrepreneurs pick a path and go for it.  They may get a few car horns, but they always manage to get across quickly, leaving the rest of the fear-stricken pack behind.
  • Have a niche.  There is a large gathering area in Rome known as Piazza Navona.  It’s a bit like an incubator facility on the inside, filled with dozens of budding artists and entrepreneurs trying to sell their goods & services to the public.  One particular entertainer, a guitarist, caught my attention. As we sat near him, it became apparent that the guitarist only knew four songs.  But he knew those songs well and that’s all he needed, as passersby rarely stayed longer than a few minutes, just enough to give him a tip for the good experience.  His guitar box was full of cash within just an hour.  Too many startups, ours included, can be accused of offering too many services, instead of focusing on the few things that customers value the most.

Of all the sights I saw, one image stands out more than any other: the Roman Coliseum.  Standing inside the coliseum as the sun poured through arcs in the east wall, imagining the chariot races & gladiator battles that took place nearly 2,000 years ago is…indescribable.  Awe struck by the scale of what they built, with the limited tools & resources available to them when it was done.  I am 100% certain that nobody will remember the name plura Financial in the year 4012.  I’d be happy with 2022.  But the journey through Rome, the coliseum in particular, made me proud to be a part of a team trying to create something special.

Visit Rome, it’s a life experience.

(And yes, the baby is still crying…)


Written by entrabanker

April 30, 2012 at 4:54 am

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