Make Grit Happen: A Filmaker's Advice For Startups And Entrepreneurs

by David Stern

I had the good fortune of being alone last weekend. That meant, of course, the opportunity to bathe on a regular basis AND watch for the second and third times, some of the documentaries that we’ve screened at Clearstone’s Storyteller Series.  I’ve been lucky to have been mostly “present at the creation” of many of these films, and have seen most of them go from ideation, to financing, to sale, to the first screens. I have also been present at the creation of some great companies. So after watching “Resolved”, “New York Doll”, and “King of Kong” one more time, I reached out to Greg Whiteley, one of the filmmakers, wondering what lessons he had learned along the way that might apply to our business of building great startups from creation to exit. Here’s one.

There is an old Chinese proverb that goes something like “The temptation to quit will be greatest just before you are about to succeed”. I had just watched “Resolved”, which I HIGHLY recommend, so I reached out to Greg. “Every single project I’ve done has had a moment where I’ve said, either to myself or to my wife, well, this was a bad idea. I think it might be easier to quit and start another movie”.

When I asked Greg to elaborate, he told the stories of EVERY movie he has ever made—that at some point, in every movie, he felt like he had wasted man-years of time, money, and emotional capital without foreseeable payoff. “For Resolved, it came after a screening in which every friend in the room seemed bored out of their skulls. The problem we were having was trying to explain the complex nature of debate and how it had become that way. The section was long and boring. To remove the section left the audience confused. My fear was I had made the mistake of making a movie about a subject that even it’s participants felt pretty dry.”

When I asked him how he overcame those issues in “Resolved” and the four other films (including the sort of titled “Mitt Movie”), Greg commented that every great endeavor has a “trial of faith” attached to it that must be overcome, by whatever method you choose:  Regarding “Resolved”, “There were a few days in which I’d come into our edit bay in Santa Monica and I would just stare at the computer screen.  Sometimes that would become too much and I would lie down on the carpet.  I was renting an office from a law firm and it had a glass door.  The lawyers would walk by, shaking their heads at this kid who appeared to be using their office to take long, open-eyed naps.  Eventually, however, a kernel of an idea came to me.  I honestly think I simply won a staring contest with my footage in which I outlasted its refusal to yield its story to me.”

When we were capturing footage at a debate tournament early on in the process (and if you watch it, look for my “cameo”), I remember asking Greg in real time, how in the heck he planned on making the most esoteric subject matter, debate, accessible to a broad audience. What turned out, is pretty powerful.

“It took a month or so to execute but the idea ultimately led to both an efficient and entertaining way to explain the history of debate.  That section, which gave us so much trouble, became one of the great strengths of the movie. “

We are very much in an era in startup land where it is increasingly common to see young, talented teams panic at the first sign of not trending towards escape velocity and run to the perception of “greener” pastures, most often for the wrong reasons, and by “wrong”, I don’t mean no plan, no money!  I’ve heard some people argue that this is but a product of our times–easy access to massive amounts of cheap capital, aggressive acqui-hiring companies, Tim Ferris, or even at the extremes, something ingrained increasingly in us out of a broader sense of American exceptionalism and entitlement. Whatever the reasons, it is a disturbing trend for many investors to be sure.

We work in a startup universe where there seemingly is increasingly an over indexing of IQ and a seemingly decreasingly under indexing of GRIT. We work in a startup universe where the average IQ is not close to average and advanced degrees from Stanford, M.I.T., IIT, Cornell (shameless plug) and Cal Tech are as common as a Charlie Sheen drinking binge. You want to stand out? You want to develop a differentiator in your personal brand that will transcend markets and time? MAKE GRIT HAPPEN!

In a subsequent post, I’ll lay out my “GRIT” index, a tool to assess whether entrepreneurs older than 2 would have eaten the marshmallow or not.

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