Leaving Safe Harbor

The wind was a steady 25 knots gusting to 30 at 10am Saturday morning. Outside the harbor break wall the waves were 8-10 feet rolling South towards our next port of call and I had a decision to make: Stay put or leave our safe harbor to engage the open water towards our next adventure.

This experience last summer during my sailing trip around Lake Huron and the North Channel is the best analogy I have to what entrepreneurs go through when they are wrestling with the decision to quit their job and pursue their venture.

Most people (and most sailors for that matter) grow comfortable in their current job or role and feel protected from the turbulent waters of startup life. Creating something from nothing is always more difficult and uncertain which causes many of us to stay moored to our dock while the beauty of the storm roles by outside our walls.

I use the word beauty purposely to describe the storm. There is something about nature’s fury and power that is amazingly beautiful to watch. The challenge it creates to survive, the mental quickness, the physical strength, the courage it demands all bring to the surface a heightened state of awareness that makes life so wonderful.

I ask entrepreneurs to weigh carefully whether or not they want to engage life at its fullest or would they rather enjoy the relative safety of “harbor life”. Yes, being an entrepreneur is exciting but it is not easy. I have found that the feeling of satisfaction, however, that one gets when accomplishing something they themselves may not have thought possible is unbeatable!

As I reflect back on those moments of leaving safe harbors I can see the entrepreneurial parallels unfold:

At 10:15am on that Saturday my family and I dawned our life jackets and checked over our vessel to ensure it was as prepared as possible for the challenges ahead. We then enlisted the help of the dockhands at the state marina to help shove us off and provide the moral support we needed for the rough journey ahead.

At 10:20am we took a deep breath and cast off our lines and engaged the auxiliary engine to guide our sailboat out of the safe harbor and pointed her towards the surging waves ahead.

At 10:25am we rounded the break wall and braced ourselves for the first 10 footer which shook the boat as if awakened from a deep sleep. I could see the fear and questioning look of my crew regarding our decision to leave our snug harbor.

At 10:30am we dug deep into our reservoir of courage, raised our sails, turned to the proper course and headed towards our next port of call.

Finally, at 10:45am we were sailing at 8 knots due South and enjoying every minute of it! The waves, although big, were actually fun and our fear turned to excitement as we rode down one wave and up onto another not sure what each new crest would bring. The wind, which sounded intimidating in the harbor, was less intense at our backs as we ran with it towards our destination. Our sense of accomplishment and triumph over our fears was intoxicating!

I’ve had the privilege of working with so many amazing entrepreneurs during my last four years as Executive Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan. I’ve seen the look of fear and excitement in the eyes of some of the most amazing individuals and have been blessed to call many of them now my friends.

As I step down from my role as Executive Director to embark on my next entrepreneurial journey I pause while I’m surveying my ship and watching the rolling waves that lay ahead and reflect on how incredible the journey has been and how humbled I am at the tremendous source of talent at the University of Michigan and the team who run the Center for Entrepreneurship.

Then I slowly untie my dock lines…. smile in anticipation of the battle ahead… and cast off.

Go Blue!

Follow me @DougNeal_MI and my new ship – Michigan eLab


2 thoughts on “Leaving Safe Harbor

  1. Excellent post Doug. You were meant to sail and have already helped so many learn to love the sea. This is a loss for U of M, but a great gain for the overall Michigan startup scene.

    Reminds me of the quote by William Shed – “A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are made for.”

    Thanks for your encouragement and leadership to us all. And thanks for continuing to play such an important role in helping us conquer the turbulence of entrepreneurship.

  2. Thanks for your help, Doug. I’ll never forget starting a company in a huge basement and meeting some really good people. Those were very exciting times when the TechArb was just getting started and we just kind of made it up as we went along. Thanks again and Godspeed.

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