Purpose as a source of hope in times of crisis
There is nothing like a time of crisis to undercut an entrepreneur’s faith in their purpose. It’s enough to look at the impending recession, the massive layoffs all over the world, or the 50% downturn in VC investments to feel like the hope of startup success is fading.
And then again, history teaches us that some of the world’s most successful unicorns grew during times just like these. Many such companies came out of the 2007-2008 crisis, including Airbns, Slack, Pinterest, Square, Uber, Instagram, and many others that managed not only to survive but to thrive.
How did they do that? What did those companies have up their sleeves that helped them get through hard times? Most answers would give you a list of success criteria with things like the quality and relevance of the product, the identity of the investors, the amount of money available to the company at any given time, and of course profitability. Seldom you find an answer that actually deals with what is at the heart of these lists: the purpose of the company.
What all the world’s most successful entrepreneurs have in common is the fact that they had a distinct purpose which they have worked tirelessly to reveal, sharpen and live by. Having faith in their purpose and being connected to the inner voice that drives them is the basis for the success of their startup, and, on some level, to the quality of their own lives. Those that did not manage that did not survive.
As in every week, this week’s parasha offers us the best illustration of the topic. Jacob is found in a state of despair. He had secured the birthright blessing. But, unlike Abraham who relocated from Haran to the land of Cnaan in order to fulfill the monotheistic dream, Jacob is given the exact opposite command - exiled, he must now travel from Cnaan to Haran. And not for the sake of fulfilling any dream but to save his life from his brother’s lust for vengeance. Contrary to the life of honor and success that was promised to his father, Isaac, and his grandfather, Abraham, Jacob finds himself slaving away for 21 years at the service of Laban, suffering humiliation and fraud throughout the way.
Entrepreneurs who to this day have only known summer are now experiencing similar challenges. Following a decade of economic prosperity, high valuations and fast growth, startups have all of a sudden come across a wall. In face of this, most of us, entrepreneurs and investors alike, experience a serious crisis of faith. How could it be that despite our vision, despite our purpose, we find ourselves in such a great crisis that throws doubt on the chances of our startup success?
What I find wonderful about Jacob is the fact that he was a human being like the rest of us. A great part of his life was characterized by doubt and controversial behavior towards his relatives in trying to get what he wants (on this matter I disagree with some of my friends who often look for ways to glorify Jacob).
We find a clear example of that when God is revealed to Jacob in his dream at night in Beth El. Seeing Jacob in dire straits, God brings him hope using almost the exact words he had said to Abraham. The dream clearly strengthens Jacob but still he demonstrates surprise and a lack of faith. As the Bible says: “And Jacob awakened from his sleep, and he said, "Indeed, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know”. Unlike Abraham, Jacob did not have a clear and pure knowledge of the God within him, of his purpose and of the way to fulfill it. Throughout the way, he wants proof and assurances, and because he is doubtful and uncertain, the vision is only revealed to him in indirect ways, like through his dreams.
Truth is, most of us resemble Jacob more than Abraham. As a VC investor, I too experience similar challenges. While my vision and purpose are clear to me, that does not mean that the road to fulfillment is not paved with trials that often challenge my faith. Like Jacob, we too need actual proof of God’s promise to fulfill our purpose. As the Bible says:
And Jacob uttered a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and He will guard me on this way, upon which I am going, and He will give me bread to eat and a garment to wear; And if I return in peace to my father's house, and the Lord will be my God; Then this stone, which I have placed as a monument, shall be a house of God, and everything that You give me, I will surely tithe to You.
The chances of startup survival are only as great as the entrepreneur’s faith in their purpose, as is their quality of life. It’s not for nothing that Jacob’s attempts to improve the quality of his life are met with some serious resistance. The reason for that has to do with the level of faith that Jacob has in his purpose, how distinct and clear it is to him and the extent to which he lives by it. In other words, the extent to which God lives within him.
Like Jacob, we are all charged with the difficult task of continuously discovering, honing and refreshing our purpose. And there is not better time than a time of crisis to accomplish that. So for those of you who are on the verge of despair and are close to giving up I say: make a purpose for yourself. Get out there and discover what that purpose is, uncover it layer by layer, carve it, renew it, and let it always be your subject. This purpose will serve as our pillar of fire that stands tall and strong as it gets us through the economic night that is upon us.
Drawing: Shai Azoulay, The Dream of Jacob