Season 2, episode 2: “Where Silence Has Lease”
Lesson: most companies almost auto-destruct at some point
This post is part of my ongoing quest to watch every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and pull one startup, entrepreneurship, tech, or investing lesson from each.
“While en route to the Mogana quadrant, the Enterprise comes comes across a unique phenomena for the first time. It appears as a black void, with no matter or energy readings of any kind. As the Enterprise approaches the entity, it envelops the ship completely. They find however that they are unable to leave and when a Romulan vessel suddenly appears, Picard and the crew realize that something is amiss. Unable to move or leave and facing a lifetime as a prisoner of Nagilum, who wishes to experiment on them, Captain Picard decides there can be only one solution to set them free.”
In this episode, Picard is willing to blow up everyone on the Enterprise to prevent this badly-designed, CGI-faced alien presence Nagilum from killing up to half the occupants to understand all the ways that humans can die.
Nagilum: To understand death, I must amass information on every aspect of it. Every kind of dying. The experiments shouldn’t take more than a third of your crew, maybe half.
Picard and Riker jointly arm the Enterprise’s self-destruct weapon and then wait out Nagilum with only ten seconds til the explosion. Has anyone in the history of scifi or action genres ever started a self-destruct timer and stopped it with less than ten seconds left? There must be a rule that the bomb either has to explode, or a character stops the countdown right before it goes off. No one’s ever like, “all right, two hours left…kill it.” If it doesn’t come down to the wire, is it even entertainment?
Many of the best companies had periods where they made it to the brink of death with days to spare. You tend to hear only about the winning moments, but the true stories are much more stressful. Almost all of the top companies (they’re unicorns today) in Accomplice’s portfolio reached at least one point where they were out of money, couldn’t make payroll, were 100% dependent on one investment coming through, or did a Hail Mary and changed the entire company strategy with no backup option.
It’s important to be transparent about this stuff because the pressure to be “always crushing it” as a startup today is absurd and immense.
Here’s a sampling of other iconic tech companies that almost died:
- Apple hit rock bottom in 2006, losing $1B a year in the period after Steve Jobs left the first time and before he returned to launch the iMac and the iPod. Microsoft invested $150M despite being Apple’s main competition. Now Apple is the most valuable company in the world with a $1.3T market cap.
- Airbnb’s founders were out of funding and had maxed out their credit cards trying to get the business off the ground in 2008, right after the financial market crashed. In a last ditch effort to survive, they started selling cereal boxes that they redesigned as political swag around the McCain/Obama election. They sold out and Airbnb lived on to raise hundreds of millions. The company’s expected to IPO in 2020 and is valued around $40B today.
- Nintendo sank in 2012 with the poor performance of the Wii U console, and experts were saying it was the end for the nostalgic gaming company. But the Switch owned 2017 with 8 million units sold in the first 10 months and $1.6B in profits, a 500% year-over-year increase, putting Nintendo back on the map. They’re worth over $47B today.
- IBM almost died in 1992 after losing $5B, the most of any American company in history at that time. They hired a new CEO, Lou Gerstner, who fired 100k people and changed up the strategy. Now they’re worth $118B.
Most startups fail. That’s just reality, and there’s no shame in it. Even if you fail as a startup founder, you’re still part of an elite group of people who tried; that’s more than most people can say. So when you’re down to the wire, eating ramen and biting your nails down to nothing, stressing about how you’re going to pay your employees, remember that many of the best founders and companies have been through this and went on to thrive.