Entrepreneurship is hard but you can’t die

We Sleep Peaceably In Our Beds At Night Only Because Rough Men Stand Ready To Do Violence On Our Behalf

Everyone has events that shape the rest of their lives.  This was one of mine.


I’ve never been shot at. Much braver men I once worked with faced that every day. But for a year and a half I saw weapons of war take off every day with bombs hanging under the wings. It never really hit home until the day I realized some of the planes didn’t come back.

Life in a War Zone
In the early 1970’s the U.S. was fully engaged in the war in Vietnam. Most of the fighter planes used to support the war were based in Thailand, or from aircraft carriers (or for some B-52 bombers, in Guam.)  I was 19, in the middle of a hot war learning how to repair electronics as fast as I could. It was everything life could throw at you at one time with minimum direction and almost no rules.

It would be decades before I would realize I had an unfair advantage. I had grown up in home where I learned how to live in chaos and bring some order to my small corner of it. For me a war zone was the first time all those skills of shutting out everything except what was important for survival came in handy. But the temptations in Thailand for a teenager were overwhelming: cheap sex, cheap drugs (a pound of Thai marijuana for twenty dollars, heroin from the Golden Triangle that was so pure it was smoked, alcohol cheaper than soda.) I saw friends partying with substances in quantities that left some of them pretty badly damaged. At a relatively young age I learned the price of indulgence and the value of moderation.

What a great job
But I was really happy. What a great job – you work hard, party hard, get more responsibility and every once in awhile get to climb into fighter plane cockpits and turn them on. What could be better?

Near the beginning of the year when I was at an airbase called Korat, a new type of attack aircraft showed up – the A-7D Corsair. It was a single seat plane with modern electronics (I used to love to play with the Head Up Display.) And it was painted with a shark’s mouth. This plane joined the F-4’s and F-105 Wild Weasels (who went head-to-head with surface-to-air missiles,) and EB-66’s reconnaissance aircraft all on a very crowded fighter base.  While the electronics shop I worked in repaired electronic warfare equipment for all the fighter planes, I had just been assigned to 354th Fighter Wing so I took an interest in these relatively small A-7D Corsair’s (which had originally been designed for the Navy.)

He’s Not Coming Back
One fine May day, on one of my infrequent trips to the flight line (I usually had to be dragged since it was really hot outside the air-conditioned shop), I noticed a few crew chiefs huddled around an empty aircraft spot next to the plane I was working on. Typically there would have been another of the A-7’s parked there. I didn’t think much of it as I was crawling over our plane trying to help troubleshoot some busted wiring. But I started noticing more and more vans stop by with other pilots and other technicians– some to talk to the crew chief, others just to stop and stare at the empty spot where a plane should have been parked. I hung back until one of my fellow techs said, “Lets go find out what the party is about.”

We walked over and quickly found out it wasn’t a party – it was more like a funeral.  The A-7 had been shot down over Cambodia.  And as we found out later, the pilot wasn’t ever coming home.

An empty place on the flight line
While we were living the good life in Thailand, the Army and Marines were pounding the jungle every day in Vietnam. Some of them saw death up close. 58,000 didn’t come back – their average age was 22.

Everyone shook their heads about how sad. I heard later from “old-timers” who had come back for multiple tours “Oh, this is nothing you should have been here in…” and they’d insert whatever year they had been around when some days multiple planes failed to return. During the Vietnam War ~9,000 aircraft and helicopters were destroyed. Thousands of pilots and crews were killed.

It’s Not a Game
I still remember that exact moment – standing in the bright sun where a plane should be, with the ever present smell of jet fuel, hearing the engines of various planes taxing and taking off with the roar and then distant rumble of full afterburners – when all of a sudden all the noise and smells seemed to stop – like someone had suddenly turned off a switch. And there I had a flash of realization and woke up to where I was. I suddenly and clearly understood this wasn’t a game. This wasn’t just a big party. We were engaged in killing other people and they were equally intent on killing us. I turned and looked at the pilots with a growing sense of awe and fear and realized what their job – and ours – was.

That day I began to think about the nature of war, the doctrine of just war, risk, and the value of National Service.

Captain Jeremiah Costello and his A-7D was the last attack aircraft shot down in the Vietnam War.

Less then ninety days later the air war over Southeast Asia ended.

For the rest of my career when things got tough in a startup (being yelled at, working until I dropped, running out of money, being on both ends of stupid decisions, pushing people to their limits, etc.), I would vividly remember seeing that empty spot on the flightline. It put everything in perspective.

Entrepreneurship is hard but you can’t die.

Listen to the post here: Download the Podcast here

39 Responses

  1. I imagine Israelis from hi-tech Israel have a similar attitude. Dov Frohman, the founder of Intel in Israel (8,000+ employees) mentions in his book, Leadership the Hard Way, how they decided to continue chip fabrication while being bombarded by Scud missiles in 1991.

    Only at the last moment did I escape a terrorist attack (BMW Jerusalem Sept 2009). I have been to places that had been hit by terrorist attacks or places that were hit by terrorist attacks after I had been there. For example, many times I was at the Sbarro’s at King George and Jaffa Rd. in Jerusalem before it was blown up.

  2. Thanks for remembering the lessons we learned in the USAF as much younger men. I am thankful to be a grandfather in my late sixties with heart problems & a bad back, many our age & younger never got the chance to hold & enjoy their children or grandchildren.I hope I never take any of my many blessings for granted or let life’s daily aggravations cause me to forget how very fortunate I am to be alive & an American. I only wish the so called leaders of our country had shared our experiences in the military during their youth , things could be fairer & much more civil for ALL Americans regardless of political persuasion.

  3. Steve:

    Thank you for this insightful recollection. I too have memories of that war that are vivid to me and remind me that as tough as things are in starting up and running a successful business (even the inevitable awful lawsuits) it isn’t as bad as I have experienced. Mind flooded with thoughts, sights, sounds, and memories. Thank you again for the perspective.

    Kent Millington
    Utah Valley University

  4. Hi Steve

    Thanks for the post. I spent 13 years as a Flight Engineer on a combat helicopter in the Canadian Air Force. Some of my buddies come home in a box.

    I embrace your perspective on life. At least I can get up the next day and give it my best (to achieve my goals). Those guys are forgotten by almost everyone except for two days a year : Remembrance Day and the anniversary of their death.

    Everyday is special�.if it isn’t special, make it special!!!!!

    Have a blue sky day.



  5. I recently retired from a career as a Navy SEAL to pursue entrepreneurship / a start up in advanced manufacturing. (Manufacturing being a ground zero of sorts on lean methodologies vis a vi the Toyota Production System ideology).

    I think that warfare uniquely prepares people for entrepreneurship because time spent in one endeavor (the profession of arms) prior to the other (start-up land) forces a person to develop the decision making skills to iterate quickly under conditions of extreme stress and ambiguity.

    Stress, ambiguity, and dynamic variance/change being the “friction” and “fog” of war that causes simple execution to become so hard. I liken start-up land very much to actual combat, although to your point, with less implications for life and death.

  6. I’m sure that you can die if you push yourself too hard and don’t take care of your body. It’s probably not as risky as flying into a war zone, but it’s a risk nonetheless.

  7. Thanks Steve, thoughtful post. I wasn’t having a great day… and that put it into perspective.

  8. Steve–thank you for the reminder. It’s called “perspective”…the point of view from above the battleground, where the all-consuming day-to-day drama of a start-up is just not that big a deal.

  9. I (un)fortunately had not such (war) experience in my life, but during my previous/current idea/startup I thought many times about death.

    When everything goes wrong, when the users and interactions slow down, when you’ve lose almost every friend because you spent nights at working instead of going out, and most important when the team is also falling a part…

    This is a situation I’d not wish to anyone because if you’re not strong enough the line between the life and the death is really thin. But that’s also when you understand that none of them really matters: you can make new friends, join or create other teams, that there are plenty of other ideas to work on, that investors understand (or at least I think they do) when a startup fails as it’s part of their job and that you don’t have to feel guilty for it forever or do stupid things, but there is one thing that is much more valuable: the experience you did.

    I just wish that find new ideas/teams will be much simpler 🙂

  10. Hi, need your feedback here. I’ve never been to war, just served in a semi-special unit where I’ve merely been injured and once almost lost my leg, but nothing big compared to a war zone. The problem that I have is that whenever I got into the same situations you mention in your last paragraph, these memories (and some others) pop up and they hold me… back. Exactly the opposite. Why do you believe this is the case for some people and not for others?

  11. tl;dr – story about idiots killing other idiots

  12. I just posted this on HN as a special type of “get out of the office” experience…
    “After studying philosophy & ancient greek, I wanted to know what real life was so I joined the Paris firefighter Brigade for a 5 years contract. One evening later on, working on my 1st startup, things were tough, a Friday night after dinner with my cofounders I wanted to go back to work. When putting the key in our office door, I looked at my hands and suddenly realized I had them both… and then that I had both of my arms, my legs and my brains were in my skull, (it’s not necessarily that way, like I did see brains out of a skull (that’s not what shocked me btw, but that strange little pinky cube 10 meters away on that street as we were going back to the truck). That was enough for me that night. Was I an entrepreneur suffering, struggling, risking my relationship and all my savings? (with that startup I eventually lost it all). No I was the lucky one. I did not open that door, turned around and went for a walk instead. I was alive. Hey! I still am 🙂

    // In memory of those pilots and of four of my firestation colleagues, two, motorbike accidents (after 72 hours duty), one (a chief): heart attack 9 month after retirement, on dead in operation, rescuing the corpse of a missing speleodiver. http://www.plongeesout.com/portraits/portrait/maignan%20nicolas%20cv.htm he was 27 and the coolest, nicest guy you can think of.// ”
    Thank you for your post Steve.

  13. Steve,
    A few weeks ago, we made a similar post in our EarthAnatomy.com blog. In fact it was our first real post.
    See, we are a group of infantry Marines (and “Doc”) from Iraq (2005-2006). Most of us young, yet some of us had more education, life and work experience prior to combat. Some were in law school, others owned construction companies and rep’ed products for pharma and medical device firms.
    Of the 20 in our mobile assault platoon, 12 original men were left standing… we call ourselves Grizzly Partners. The names of our brothers are the names of men that cannot be forgotten. They are the ones that drive our ambition to succeed.
    As a battalion, we lost 48 brave men. If they were asked to do it all again. They wouldn’t change a thing.
    They (we all) believed in their (our) calling. We are a consummate team of men that experienced a diaspora from civil lives and jobs to utter chaos and daily survival. Our experiences together are sacred to us, but at the same time, we are in no way different than any other group that has experienced war.
    When we returned, we started a business together. We all have our challenges, our strengths and weaknesses. But the most important thing we all share in common… a knowledge that we are placed here to do “something great”. We have been following your teaching and have purchased (and read) your book. Thank you for that.
    Our business is really starting to get some wings since 2007. Earth Anatomy is now in the US, Canada, Australia and Europe. Our team is nimble, lean and we need to scale. We need some help Steve and could use your advice.

  14. […] via Entrepreneurship is hard but you can’t die. […]

  15. In 1956 I was an Army PFC. attending a Nike Fire Control Maintenance course at Ft. Bliss, when we were loaded up in 6x6s and convoyed to Red Canyon Range for a Firepower Demonstration. We watched 90mm and 120mm antiaircraft guns guided by radar pound a tow-target, twin 40mm guns and a Skysweeper 75mm gun(doppler radar guidance) shoot RCATs down. A big red Air Force crashwagon was parked by the stands and a couple of airmen were snoozing in the sun.
    A flight of 8 F-86 Sabrejets circled high over the desert. One by one they fell in a vertiical dive pulling out to strafe, fire rockets, and drop napalm. One pilot took too long in his dive, and leveled off just feet above the cactus. Suddenly his tail went down and the jet exploded in a ball of flame with debris flying in its path. A cadre sergeant,yelling at the airman to get up, broke the silence. We had just watched a Demonstration of Death, and from that day on I always had respect for all the Air Force officers I worked with in the Atlas silos, and in the Blue Cube.

  16. By definition there are not “just wars” or all wars are just by both sides.

    Every warrior in any war believes his war is just, because he is brainwashed to do so and because it is what they want to believe. In those circumstances you need to believe. It is also very difficult to look outside your own country beliefs.

    For a Chinese warrior, Tibet conquest was “just”, for the Vietcong it was the same.( they were expelling the invaders of their homeland)

    War has nothing to do with religion, at least the Cristian religion should not, Jesus was very clear with not killing other people, and turn the other cheek.

    North America was founded in the killing of the native Americans, and it was not “just”, it was rifles and horses against tomahawks and arrows. There are not significant native populations anymore like there are in most of the rest of America. They were totally exterminated, specially in California. Now Mexicans come in and they are considered “latinos” where genetically they are much more similar to the people that lived there.

    You went to Iraq and made the war and justice has nothing to do with that, you just want to take the oil from the second biggest resource of energy in the world.

    But people had been brainwashed into believing that is not, some believe that it is about extending democracy(that is the reason they support Saudi Arabia dictatorship) or for fighting terrorism(the 911 terrorist were from Saudi Arabia so maybe you should had invaded another country).

    It was about a man that appeared and disappeared on tv (on demand when it was needed to support wars), that we were told was killed when it what not necessary anymore, and whose body dissipated on a secret place.

    Now the same happens with Iran. I can’t stand it, why people can’t be sincere? We want to continue wasting 20x more resources per capita that the rest of the world and we will kill whoever stands on our way.

    Americans love war, and that’s because they don’t have an idea of what a real war is. They believe killing 100 Iraqis for every American is a real war. They believe killing “a la videogame” with drones is real combat. They could invade other countries without the other countries invading them as there is the Pacific and the Atlantic in between.

    Is not the first country to do so, historically it has been the beginning of the end of all empires, from British to Roman, going through Spanish, French, Japanese and Chinese…

  17. Is serving in IDF good for you?…

    I think that serving in any army is good for you for all the reasons that Shani mentioned and many more. Fundamentally, you transition from being a teenager to being a responsible adult in a very short time. The word responsible has the ultimate meanin…

  18. Thanks Steve. Hope we can get together soon. I’m still in France. Steve

  19. Great post,
    Entrepreneurship does not kill the body, but may sacrifice dreams, causing a kind of moral death. What is a human being with no dreams ?
    I also like another war analogy. I compare entrepreneurs to war pilots and executives to airline commanders. War pilots have a mission to accomplish, with no survival guarantee. Airline commanders should take off, fly safely and land in time.

  20. Hi Steve,

    Thank you for the great and candid post. I share the same perspective as you.

    I was fortunate to be a Major and a commander of a combat unit in the IDF (also fortunate to come out of it in one piece). Years later, when I was working as a chip-design engineer, and later a GM for National Semiconductor in Silicon Valley, my colleagues always wondered how I could remain calm, collected, and even smile during stressful times and situations.

    I used to tell them something similar to your headline above. I would asked them what is the worst thing that could happen? Would someone get killed? Would someone get seriously injured? No. Worst case, we will lose our job and end getting a better one. Therefore, there is no reason to panic or get all stressed out. Just try to do your best.

    This perspective has definitely helped me in life, both at work and in my personal life.

    Thanks and Best Regards,

  21. Thank you. Sometimes it feels like you’re dying. But this really did put things into perspective. I appreciate it.

  22. Thank you, to all the Veterans for your service. I shudder to think about all the “Steve Blanks/entrepreneurs” that didn’t make it back home, and also the grieving parents who sons’ lives were cut short. My heart goes out to these mothers and fathers as they quietly grieve – for the rest of their lives.

  23. Thanks Steve for your perspective… Having never been to war, I look up to men who served.

    One of the GREATEST “wake up moments” in my life was jogging at 11pm on 42nd street between Grand Hyatt and Park Hyatt (at the UN) on a freezing January 1992, that year was one of the coldest winters on record and NYC ran out of snow-shovelling budget within weeks. As a visitor from Australia, I received a huge shock by accidentally tripping over a homeless man sleeping in a cardboard box on a heat vent…. That was really the first time I really noticed the homeless in the greatest & wealthiest country in the world. I would also discover fully ONE THIRD of homeless men are veterans!

    (a) Homeless Veterans and an incident 2-3 years later which exposed me to (b) Human Trafficking would become important driving forces behind my starting a business which would give me the power and wealth to REALLY fix some of the “so called” intractable problems of human society. Unfortunately, founded in September 1st 1996, the gestation of my project has taken nearly 16 YEARS already, with 6-8 iterations and many stop-starts including serious illness that caused me to lose my company in 2010 (I raised 99% of funds & I was sick). Fortunately, illness & think-time allowed me to turn a technology that industry luminaries say will fix a problem that’s existed for 100 years. I have a (compliance) IPO-date penned for NYSE “black friday” November 2015 (60th birthday of my incumbent chairman). I am thankful to a certain large IPO in May this year, except we go public not to raise money (we make money) but we will have the same valuation but with a reasonable PE of 15 or 20 NOT 105.

    Homeless Vets (NCHV) and Human Trafficking charities figure highly my list of 17 named charities which will share $5.77 billion cash at IPO. A further 15% of the company is held by my foundation to keep $ flowing. And the US will see how a non-government organization can directly generate a million jobs without adding $1 to the national debt. Amazing what a training run in 1992 can do… Every time, I get down or want to quit, I remember who it is I am trying to help!! Another one of the 17 named charities is called “Heroes fund” which assists first responders (firemen, police, servicemen, 9-11 cleanup crew) who runs into a building when everyone runs out, Governments only pay lip-service… we will shames politicians by doing what they SHOULD have done.

    • Dear Horace,

      I wish there were more people like you. Stay strong!

      Best Regards,

      • Thanks Ziv… In reading my emotional response to Steve’s post I probably let it “all hang out” a bit too much. I’m now visiting BluePhoenix KMS’s website… yes, KM is definitely something my “Red Sea pedestrian” project needs (except I get 4 lanes not 1, haha).
        Shalom, Horace

  24. It does put things in perspective.
    However I would say that if you have chosen entrepreneurship as a path, it would usually be your own choice. I am not sure who would choose war as a path.
    So if you have chosen something, it can be tough but should be enjoyable!

  25. Thank you for the perspective Steve. You have inspired my tired corporate struggle with a timely reality check.

  26. Thanks for this Steve, and for your servcie. I’ve post a link to this and the announcement to your Sept 14 class on http://Facebook.com/Small.Business.Chamber

  27. I can’t image what it was like for you and so many others, but you paint a vivid picture. Happy to be working. Thanks for sharing.

  28. Nice. The rare REMF with an understanding of what the trigger-pullers did for their money, and the fortunate nature of his existance. As a matter of fact, I take it back. He’s not a REMF.

  29. Awesome Post Steve….Thank You!!!

  30. It’s awesome post. We’re about to publish the Vietnamese version of your book – The Four Steps to the Epiphany. I wonder if you are ready for a chance to visit Vietnam and introduce your book to the startup community here.

    Quang Nguyen

  31. Great perspective Steve. I really like what you had to say and I completely agree that entrepreneurship is hard but the rewards are simply superb!

  32. […] Even if starting a business is hard, remember that at least, you can’t die. […]

  33. I second **Shani**, I totally think that it is good for you to serve the army for all the reasons Shani mentioned. It isn´t easy making the transition from a teenager to an adult and it really hurts.

  34. […] Entrepreneurship Is Hard But You Can’t Die by Steve Blank – 6 min […]

  35. Yeah…honorable perspective. May we ever more, find ways to bring our friends home- and prevent putting them at risk in the first place.

  36. Thank you, Steve. As a veteran, I really appreciate this perspective, although I do want to make certain it’s not lost that one can die in entrepreneurship. I once had a co-founder who suffered from untreated mental illnesses. He committed suicide. Looking around, I often wonder if mental illness runs higher among entrepreneurs than the rest of the population. After all, we’re all wired differently than “normal” people in the first place. With as much support as is available for startups, we still live in a pretty lonely place, effectively isolating ourselves from our support system as we hyper-focus on what we need to accomplish for success. We’ve created this culture where it’s OK to work 24×7 and focus on everything it takes for the business to succeed while harming ourselves. That’s not OK. Entrepreneurship is hard. Life is hard. Mental illness is truly awful. We need to start talking about this. Entrepreneurship can kill you.

Leave a Reply to Bernie MelansonCancel reply