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124 Startup Lessons From Staring Into A Fireplace

On March 28th, 2018, I boarded a plane that would take me to a magical place. After we landed, our local host picked us up and another 2-hour drive down the rabbit hole of rural Romania later, we arrived at the cabin. The next 48 hours were dedicated to our first in-person retreat as a mastermind group.

Next to yours truly, there’s Franz Sauerstein who helps WooCommerce stores earn more and Ovi Negrean, who runs the social media automation startup SocialBee. Between exploring the local cuisine, tossing rocks into a lake — you know, just guy stuff — and learning about the country, we took turns brainstorming our most pressing business or career issues. We settled on one issue each and then broke it down in a 90-minute deep dive.

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Where the magic happened.

Whatever mountain you want to scale in your life, occasionally, you just need to stop, stand where you are and stare up the mountain. Reassess the chosen path. To think you need time, but you also need space. Sometimes, it helps if that space is in the middle of nowhere at the other end of the world.

The cabin, the woods, the lake, the food, it all sparked our creativity and got us into the right mindset. But the most fascinating element? The fireplace. Temperatures were still low, especially at night, so all of us were responsible for keeping the house warm and smoky around the clock. On the last night before we left, we sat around it, poured ourselves some wine, and stared quietly into the glimmer for some time. As the flames started dwindling, Ovi picked up the poker, turned one of the logs, and voilà, the fire rose again.

“Ha! Nothing like a good old pivot to shake things up. Just like a startup,” he exclaimed. “I guess,” I said, “and if you don’t keep adding logs, eventually it’ll die. Also like a startup.” Our faces lit up the way only those of buzzed creatives can. “100 things we learned about startups from a fire?” Franz opens his laptop in the background. “Let’s do it!”

I’d say the rest is history, but the biggest lesson of our spontaneous exercise only came once we’d finished it: a startup actually is like a fire. Everything you need to know about beginning your own rests in mankind’s oldest tool.

Think of the following metaphors both as an instruction manual and as 124 reasons why. We had specific examples in mind for most of these, but it’s much more fun if you use your imagination to fill in the gaps.

  1. A fire isn’t invented. It’s discovered.
  2. When it starts dwindling, you might have to pivot a core log.
  3. If you don’t keep adding things to it, eventually, the fire will die.
  4. The number of things you can add is endless, but few help keep the fire alive and some extinguish it.
  5. As long as there’s even a tiny glimmer left, a new fire can rise from the ashes of a previous one.
  6. You can throttle the air to crank up the heat inside the fire…
  7. …but if you want it to grow you need to let it breathe.
  8. You might not find any wood when you most urgently need it. That’s why you should get it before, like in the summer, when wood is cheap.
  9. It doesn’t matter if the wood is wet when you buy it, as long as it’s dry by the time you throw it in.
  10. All fires start small.
  11. If you’re rich you can buy briquets to kickstart the fire, but that won’t prevent it from dying if you use crappy wood.
  12. What you use to start the fire is rarely what you actually end up with.
  13. Paper burns fast, you’ll need wood for slower, sustainable growth.
  14. Always keep a close eye on your fire.
  15. If you align the wood before lighting it up, the structure you established up front pays dividends later.
  16. Leave the fire unattended and it will ruin your life.
  17. A fire inside a nice fireplace will be perceived differently than one in a hole in the ground. Branding matters.
  18. The more wood you put in, the bigger it burns.
  19. Take out the ashes from time to time, or it’ll slowly suffocate your fire.
  20. You need the right tools to tend to the fire and handle it correctly at all times.
  21. Always keep an emergency kit at hand to put it out if it gets bad.
  22. A properly built fire can keep you warm even while you sleep.
  23. When you’re desperate, you can always try throwing random shit at it to see what works.
  24. Sometimes, you have to take a building break and clean the surrounding structure of your fire.
  25. If its a good fire it won’t just take care of you, but also those around you.
  26. A fire is the easiest way to start another fire.
  27. You can pour gasoline on your fire to make it really big, really fast. But there’s a good chance it’ll blow up in your face.
  28. A fire works best if you have a reason to start one.
  29. There are a million different reasons to start a fire. Some need warmth, some want to gather, some want to because they saw other people do it, and, sadly, some just want to watch the world burn.
  30. There are also a million different ways to start a fire. You just have to find the one that works for you and your situation.
  31. Out of all those ways, there are some that have been proven to work better than others. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
  32. The choice whether you want to start a small fire by yourself or a bigger one with other people is yours and yours alone.
  33. A fire can start by accident. But that doesn’t always mean you have to shut it down.
  34. When you try to start a fire, the trick that ends up working is usually not the one you’d have expected.
  35. You don’t control the weather. Maybe right after lighting your fire, it begins to rain.
  36. The longer you keep your fire alive despite the weather, the more traction you have to work with in the future.
  37. Fire is universal. It’s understood across cultures, and so is the value it brings.
  38. There’s no single user interface for operating a fire. Everyone can do it.
  39. If no one tells you how to run a fire, you will get burned.
  40. The first fire shocked people. They didn’t know what to do with it. But then they figured out how to use it.
  41. You must wait for the fire’s reaction every time you add something to it. Otherwise, you’ll smother it.
  42. It is most difficult to shed dead weight when all that’s left is hot ashes.
  43. When that happens, it might be easier to take some hot coal and start a new fire.
  44. You may be able to start a fire, but that doesn’t mean you know how to grow it, let alone run one that’s become huge.
  45. Ask older people to tell you about their experience with fire. Let them teach you.
  46. Fire doesn’t care about gender, race, religion, or age. Anyone can do it, and everyone will be burned the same.
  47. As long as a fire brings valuable heat, no one cares who started it.
  48. Whether you plan it or it just happens, if your fire gets really big and serious, you have to register it with the proper authorities.
  49. You can start a fire in a fancy fireplace. You can also just build a circle of sticks and stones outside in the dirt.
  50. It’s harder to build a fireplace around a burning fire, than it is to build the fireplace first, then start.
  51. As soon as you’ve lit a fire once, all subsequent fires are easier to start.
  52. Make each of your fires bigger and more valuable.
  53. The more people start fires, the better for the people as a whole.
  54. Competing to build the best fire can be fun. It also helps make better fires.
  55. Different fires get bigger when the people who run them cooperate.
  56. Combining two fires can lead to one way bigger than the sum of both.
  57. Whoever commits to tending to the fire will benefit from it the longest.
  58. Adding too much wood in one go isn’t efficient. Your fire’ll burn, but not all of it will catch on. Later, the whole stack might go off at once.
  59. The more different kinds of wood you throw into your fire, the harder it is to tell which type contributed the most to it actually burning.
  60. The same log in a different place, or at a different time, might turn from bad wood into good wood.
  61. Different people have different roles at different stages of your fire.
  62. If you don’t pick up every little stick in the beginning, you’ll never get to the point where you can burn huge chunks.
  63. Long-term, high-heat, steady fires may best run on coal, not wood.
  64. Some fires are just so people can gather temporarily, before then getting back to their own fire, or starting a new one.
  65. A fire attracts all kinds of things: people, animals, oxygen.
  66. A fire repels all kinds of things: people, animals, water.
  67. It’s easier to start a fire when your hands are still warm. Spare wood also helps.
  68. One wrong move and you’re branded for life.
  69. When you’ve got a good fire going, suddenly everyone wants to be close to you. Especially when it rains.
  70. If you start a fire and it goes out, at least you’ll have a good story to tell.
  71. You can never stop learning new skills and finding new resources if you want your fire to keep getting bigger, even just maintain it. Otherwise, it’ll plateau, go down, then die.
  72. Depending on the structure you initially build around your fire, there’ll be a limit as to how big your fire can ultimately get.
  73. There are times when you have to accept that you’re not the right person to run the fire you started and create a new one.
  74. Even after you’ve chosen to extinguish your fire, you need a plan to do so.
  75. Your fire can go wild without any prior indicators and it can happen any time. Sometimes when you least expect it.
  76. Always respect the fire.
  77. If you dance around the fire long enough, you’ll fall into it.
  78. Fire doesn’t judge.
  79. A fire might make you feel all warm and fuzzy, but it’s never your spouse.
  80. If you’re good enough, you can run multiple fires at once.
  81. Starting several fires at once, however, is always hard.
  82. When in doubt, always start one fire after another.
  83. There are people with lots of spare wood they’ll be happy to chip in. Ask these people for help.
  84. After you’ve managed your fire long enough, people will come to you for help.
  85. As a corollary, there are people who tell others how to start fires, but don’t actually know how to maintain them.
  86. Whenever you get a lot of wood at a great deal, chances are you’re the one who has to chop it down.
  87. Local wood is often cheaper, but not necessarily the best for your fire.
  88. A well-running fire might seem oblivious to the kind of wood you put in, but that only ever lasts so long.
  89. Big logs might be too much to stem right now, but that doesn’t mean you can’t come back to them later.
  90. You can always adjust the logs inside your fire, but it’s much harder after you’ve added them. You’ll need tools.
  91. There’s never just one option to get your fire burning again. Whether you should blow on it, adjust the air intake, or leave it alone is up to you to decide.
  92. With of those different options, you’ll also have different opinions what to do next.
  93. When you let someone else watch over your fire, they might tend to it differently than you would. That’s no reason it can’t work.
  94. All fires burn, but no two fires are the same.
  95. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
  96. Sometimes, all a fire needs is more of the same.
  97. Shake things up occasionally. They might fall right into place.
  98. Your plan might lead to a lopsided fire. Maybe the rest of the plan will work later. Maybe not at all.
  99. If the fire gets big enough, people will start to worship the fire itself.
  100. A huge fire can survive your own death, but only if you’ve taught others how to maintain it.
  101. No fire can keep burning without people.
  102. First you see the fire, then you hear it, then you smell it. Moving closer changes your perspective.
  103. You might throw plastic into your fire, not knowing any better. It’ll still hurt people, but you can always clean it up and prevent it from happening again.
  104. After you’ve thrown plastic into your fire once, warn others who’re about to do the same.
  105. There are a lot of wooden parts in a fire. You have to connect all of them well, or it’ll collapse.
  106. Coming home to a fire can be relaxing. It’s work that doesn’t feel like work.
  107. Fire is mesmerizing. You can look at it for hours without doing anything.
  108. Once thrown in, fire lights up the right materials, but just burns the wrong ones.
  109. When multiple people work on the same fire, you have to decide on a common approach and vision.
  110. The quickest way to warm up is to join another fire, but to be the source you have to start your own.
  111. Big fires can become boring, but that’s no excuse to pull dangerous stunts. Do something else with your time.
  112. Alcohol can start a fire, but never maintain it.
  113. Take care of yourself, then take care of your fire.
  114. A fire can pick you up when you’re down. It can remind you of the great things you’ve done.
  115. Even the best-looking fires emit CO². They all have side effects you don’t see.
  116. More often than not, it’s up to you to step up and be the firestarter.
  117. Some people steal other people’s fire.
  118. If you have to steal fire, steal it from the gods.
  119. There are fires that were never meant to be started.
  120. It’s not always the people who started the fire who get burned the most.
  121. A fire has no will of its own. You’re always responsible.
  122. When you accidentally extinguish your fire you might have to try 17 different things, but you can almost always get it started again.
  123. It’s okay to be stubborn. If you don’t want to add any wood, you can always play around with what you’ve built so far.
  124. Just when you think the fire has taught you all there is to know, it proves you wrong and teaches you something new.

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I write for You. That’s my promise — and the name of my daily email full of inspiration, smart ideas, and emotional support: https://youletter.substack.com/

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