How to hack out a path for your startup when the market is ice cold

Starting out in the oil and gas fields of the frozen north, I was the furthest thing from being the founder of a digital neurotherapy startup. 

Straight out of university, I put my technical training towards getting hydrocarbons out of the ground (or under the ocean) near the Arctic circle. I oversaw a machine learning proof-of-concept project for an offshore production platform. Other days, I analyzed and designed a reprogrammed software meant to prevent spills from energy pipelines. 

My daily soundtrack was the howling winds funneling across the frozen tundra, punctuated by the ‘whoosh’ of diesel engines and the grinding drone of the generators. Workers with frozen faces and gnarly beards bundled up in four layers of thick clothing worked alongside me. 

Why had I gone there? Mainly, to make money. My professor had recommended it. “You’ll pay off your student debt in no time!” he said. More than that, I was helping make sure oil spills didn’t wreck the pristine Arctic, turning innocent polar bears and seals into environmental refugees. That was hard but meaningful work. 

My professor was also right. Debt wouldn’t be freezing my prospects. And then, one day… I’d had enough. I had the chance to renew my contract, at a big top-up in my paycheck. But I already had some level of financial independence. It was time to forge a new kind of path. I wanted to build something. I needed to take a whole new direction.

I spent some time at Creative Destruction Lab (CDL), a kind of non-profit accelerator for science and tech companies. I could see the potential in health and life sciences. It was an exciting new horizon for me to explore. 

Was it too late to start a new adventure in my 30s? Heck, no. And not for most people, either.

Look, I get it. You think about startup founders and who comes to mind? There’s Elon Musk, who founded his first company when he was barely out of university and sold Zip3 (what? Who remembers that?) for $307 million. Or there’s Meta (formerly Facebook) founder Mark Zuckerberg, who famously founded Facebook while still in Harvard. Bill Gates was another dropout – now worth about $134 billion. Nice work, if you can get it.

The truth is, most startup founders aren’t like these people, smart fresh young faces straight out of college. In fact, the typical unicorn founder is about 34 years old. If you wanted to talk about startup founders generally, it’s more like 45

Most entrepreneurs (and certainly, most successful entrepreneurs) don’t start companies straight out of college. They get jobs and learn firsthand how tough this world is. And when they’re ready, they forge their own path into the frontier. 

Drive responsibly on ‘the road less traveled.’ It’s not just you out there

On the days leading up to my flying back to civilization, I’d sometimes trace a course with my finger on the faded old map, all white-gray-blue, in the operations office. 

The place I was going, to visit my family, wasn’t on that map of Alaska. Too far. It seemed like another world. So I didn’t always have an eye to where I was headed. 

As the founder, you’re basically in charge of this frontier expedition. So you better be able to do more than hack out a path. You’ve got to show them – your team, your investors, your family that’s putting up with your late nights and crazy schedule, that you’re making progress.

I think about Elon Musk and the early days of SpaceX. Three rockets in a row blew up – and if the fourth time hadn’t been the charm, he might have decided to set his entrepreneurial sights lower. In contrast, you think of an awful case like the Theranos fraud, where a bright-eyed, deep-voiced Elizabeth Holmes claimed that with a drop of blood, they could run an astonishing number of accurate medical tests at a trifling cost. It took 10 years of bleeding money from investors before that business expedition went off the cliff. 

Founders need to take calculated risks. You can’t let hopes (or hubris) cloud your judgment. 

We might have found in our first clinical trial that our system was ineffective. Maybe the data would show our approach to music therapy was wrong. That was a possibility. I dreaded the thought of our trudge through startup-land ending with a bad test result. Letting down funders. Letting go of employees, wondering how they’d make it out in the world again… 

It was enough stress to make this mental health startup founder worry about the state of his own neural net. I can tell you that I made full use of our AI-powered music therapy curated song lists from the start.

Still, it wasn’t enough to self-medicate with some chill music. We had to be sure where we were going.

We ran a clinical trial involving hundreds of people. We spent a lot of money – before I went down this road, I didn’t know how much money testing cost, much less the time and effort to apply to run the tests, which is a whole other ordeal.

I even got last-minute, late-night jitters from reading that music actually could increase negative thoughts. I trusted that it was a one-off fluke. You can find studies saying anything you want. Still, not the best thing to find out the night before the trial you’ve funded happens. I couldn’t sleep. I went into the office bleary-eyed, but heart racing. When I saw my Chief Innovation Officer’s smile, I knew it had been worth it. The results showed we were on the right track.

Not only did the data show that music-based treatments were effective in reducing anxiety, but it actually provided further insight that we didn’t think of. Participants that used music combined with other treatments responded positively to the treatment. This was another sign we were ready to partner with other health leaders and work together — and keep our business growing.

We’re still hacking our way through, but we know where we’re going. Every step towards our goal from this point on is music to my ears. 

Zachary McMahon is the CEO and Co-Founder at LUCID, which aims to use AI technology and neuroscience to unlock the therapeutic power of music.


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