What Paragliding Taught Me About My Startup
I'm sharing this personal story because it taught me a very important life lesson and how I think about my next startup.
The view from the top of the 1,800' high Poo Poo point was stunning. I wanted just to stay there and watch paragliders soaring in the sky. My coach called me and we started to get ready for our first tandem jump. We prepared our harness and double checked all the locks and hocks holding me to the glider. He made us do some quick test runs, grabbing on my suit from behind to be sure I would run fast and strong enough when it is our turn. No problem there: all good to go!
It was our turn now, we were at the beginning of 60 foot runway ended with a cliff to the bottom of the mountain. My coach behind me was doing final checks on hocks, glider and helmet. He stressed that when he says go, I must go full speed and use all my strength no matter what. We looked at the a small windsock waiting for the right moment to come. He suddenly shouted in my ears: GO. I started running and in few steps the force of the glider to pull me back was much bigger than I expected. He continued shouting: GO, GO, GO. DON'T STOP, DON'T STOP. I held my breath. I was looking at the ground and pushing hard, few steps forward, one step backward with increasing force of the glider. He was still shouting behind me and pushing with me. We were moving forward. We were getting close to the edge. I didn't believe that we would be taking off. No time to question it right then. I ran as fast as I can with all the energy and all of a sudden I was pulled up and I saw us passing the edge. Whooo! we were up in the sky and I started breathing again!
20 minutes later we went through an air bubble few feet in the air and hit the ground a bit hard in our landing. No one got hurt and he pulled me off the ground. I asked: when can I do it solo? He calmly said: Let's do one more tandem to go through the controls. My heart beats were so intense. I could almost hear them. The rush of the adrenaline was calling for another tandem to do my 1st solo sooner. My phone rang, and my wife was reminding me that we have to catch our lunch appointment. So, we decided to do it the week after. My coach reminded me to read the paragliding manual to get ready for my solo flight.
I'm now getting ready for my 1st solo flight. I didn't read yet the paragliding manual, but that's ok. It has been 2 weeks since my first tandem flight. My 2nd tandem flight went pretty much smooth. We spent more time in the air going through the controls of the glider and different landing techniques. The runway was becoming a familiar place. It was time to get the glider ready to fly. It is more than 40 feet wide with more than 200 strings attached to it. I untangled the strings. The glider was now taking its shape on the ground ready to be filled with air. My coach offered me to look at the windsock to tell when it is the good time to go. Now waiting for the run signal. Wind was a bit faster than usual. Coach placed me in the middle of the runway to take off at the right moment. It made me nervous as I would have less time to back off if I needed to. Also, the gilder's pulling force would start immediately when I run. Everyone backed away. I'm now by my own waiting for the signal. After 3 long minutes, the coach shouted: GO, GO , GO. I started running. I stopped breathing and focusing my energy to push forward against the immerse force of the glider pulling me back. I was moving forward. Started to go faster. I'm 20 feet away from the cliff. Around 15 feet way from the cliff the glider lifted me. I was up in the sky again! I felt lightheaded because I haven't been breathing for a minute. I started breathing and hearing in the radio instructions from my coach on how to navigate my way away from the launch point to clear space for others to launch. 15 minutes later, I was getting ready for landing. Coach's assistant at the landing zone guided me on how to land: "Pull the right handle a bit. Pull both handles to slow down. Pull more. Pull more. " Finally I hit the ground smoothly. I shouted loudest ever: I MADE IT!
4 weeks into my training and I was getting ready for my 5th solo flight. I still didn't read the paragliding manual or watch the recommended videos. Not a problem, I guess. All was good and it didn't look to me that it is that difficult anyways. I was learning by doing . My harness is ready, attached to the glider, and I was at the beginning of the runway ready for flying. "GO, GO, GO " my coach shouted. I started running. All as expected. I'm lifted. My mind ready for the next step.
All of a sudden, I could feel the wind changing its direction a bit. I felt my heart race in panic. Didn't know what to do. The glider started to rotate and pointed me to the side of the mountain. I decided to reduce the glider's speed and try to land at the launch point. The ground was in reach to my left leg. I decided to add more forward weight to land. I hit the ground and I heard a cracking sound. My left foot is 90 degree towards the left. I can't feel it. Suddenly, a strange numbing in my left leg. I didn't know again what to do. The glider hit the ground and now I'm lying down at a steep hill close to the launch pad. For a moment I didn't hear anything, didn't see anything. My coach shouted: "Mohamed, are you ok?" I started screaming painfully: I BROKE MY LEG. I BROKE MY LEG. I CAN'T MOVE. 5 or 6 men were at the launch point came down to me and carried me to the top. I was lucky enough to have a car a the mountain top. They drove me down to the nearest ER. The doctor told me that I dislocated my ankle and smashed my fibula bone. It took me around 15 months, 2 surgeries, and lots of physical therapy sessions to be close to normal again.
I ruminated about the whole experience and realized my mistake. I asked myself: should I have done more on ground training? Should I have read the paragliding manual thoroughly? In a sport with such high risks what should I've done differently before I take it more seriously? I remembered Reid Hoffman quote about building a startup:
"Starting a company is like throwing yourself off the cliff and assembling an airplane on the way down"
If I start my own venture, it will be a similar experience, I believe. I may have someone to help me kick start it (VCs, partners, friends, etc.) But it comes to me at the end and whether I'm ready to handle unfamiliar situations or not. It is impossible to anticipate all what I'll go through. However, the more I think and prepare before I jump, the more my challenges will look as a variation of what I prepare for. Am I ready to think and decide fast when the wind changes it direction and gravity works stronger on me? If you are after your startup, secure the most important stuff in your life. If it is your family, are they ready for such venture? For example, do you have enough reserve to run 12 to 18 month without a regular income? Did you invest in your relationships to make them ready for your long working days away from home? Also, what is your plan if your startup failed? How do you plan to come back to the game?
"That's my story. What was your last life changing experience that made you think differently about life goals and how to work on them?