Finding Obsession in Iceland
A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to spend two weeks in Iceland, a country I’ve long wanted to visit. My trip began with Startup Iceland, the annual event run by my friend Bala Kamallakhara. It was a terrific few days, starting with the launch of Ultrahack on Sunday night. On Monday, we were treated to opening remarks by the outgoing President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson who had been in office since 1996. He delivered an impactful talk about how technology has transformed society since he took office (while Bill Clinton was President). It was a real honor for me to meet a sitting President. Bala assembled some captivating speakers including Hjalmar Gislason, VP of Data at Qlik who shared his experiences scaling a startup to scaling a product for a NASDAQ company. We also heard from Magnus Bjornsson, Sr. Director of Development at Oracle which acquired Endeca, the startup where he headed up engineering. Among many others, I was really stoked to watch Techstars CTO Jud Valeski give a great talk on data and equally excited to have Techstars Managing Director Jenny Fielding join me and Bala for a fireside chat about the impact of the global accelerator movement. We all spent the next day at Reykjavík University working with a bunch of terrific startups.
I left Reykjavík the next day in a 4WD with Jud to do some exploring in the sparsely populated north highlands. As we bounced around the dirt roads, we spent a lot of time talking about how inspiring it was to see another entrepreneur-led startup community unfolding. Bala has adopted Brad Feld‘s Startup Communities as his blueprint and it’s easy to spot the familiar pieces falling into place that will surely make Reykjavík a city that’s going to produce its share of important startups for years to come.
I finished my time in Iceland by fulfilling a dream to spend a week side-by-side with my friend Chris Burkard, who many believe to be the most inspiring outdoor / adventure photographer in the world. If you’re unfamiliar with Chris, check out his Instagram feed or better yet, take a few minutes and watch his incredible TED Talk and you’ll see why he’s motivated so many millions of people to spend more time outdoors. We spent a week with a small group of passionate photographers exploring the remote Westfjords. The highlight for me was an absolutely epic hike from 6pm to 6am in the Hornstrandir nature preserve on the northern tip of Iceland, where I captured this shot of Chris somewhere around 1am.
While the week was truly remarkable and I learned so much, the most inspiring moments of my time with him occurred on the drive back to Reykjavík at the end of the trip. Instead of taking the 30 minute flight we had booked or a 6 hour drive on the highway, Chris decided we should drive through the most remote single lane and dirt roads in search of more great frames to shoot. We jumped in a Defender with his assistant Ryan in Ísafjörður and set out on a 24 hour adventure which crystallized for me why Chris has reached the pinnacle of his field.
For context, remember that none of us had slept for more than a few hours each day for the previous week as we were in the arctic circle and the sun never dipped below the horizon while we explored the remote fjords by sailboat. We’d set out on hikes over the fingers of the fjords each “night” and Captain Siggi would pick us the following morning. We’d hike for miles and miles, stopping to take advantage of the golden light created by the sun sitting on the horizon from about 9pm to 3am.
So despite (or perhaps as a result of) some pretty intense sleep deprivation, Chris decided that we had 30 hours left in Iceland and we were going to milk it right up until we stepped on the plane. We filled up with gas and coffee and took off in search of great features to shoot that Chris had been researching. I learned how Chris leaves little to chance. He does a bunch of research about the places he visits and stores the coordinates of everything he wants to photograph in his phone. The weather turned cold and damp and armed with a series of GPS coordinates and a map, we drove for over 24 hours, stopping only for beautiful photography opportunities or to warm our bones in remote hot springs.
My biggest takeaway from that journey with Chris was how completely obsessed he is with his work. Despite the fact that we had just spent a full week shooting and talking about photography incessantly, he was in the zone the entire drive. 24 hours without any sleep! While the weather worsened and it got colder and colder, he never lost his enthusiasm. We’d reach our coordinates, pull over and he’d photograph something from every angle. After a while, I’d find myself heading back to the truck to warm up and Chris would be out there with cold wet fingers trying to capture the perfect shot. After a storied career, 25 trips to Iceland and millions of photographs taken, he’d get back in the rig and with the enthusiasm of a kid at Christmas talk about contrast, and light and what Iceland means to him.
Gazing out the window on the flight home, I couldn’t stop thinking about how similar Chris is to the most spectacular founders I’ve ever worked with. People like Isaac Saldana of Sendgrid, or Ian and Adam of Sphero or Brad Schell of @Last Software who turned their obsessions into some of the most important companies in their respective categories. I’ve had a front seat in watching how my partner David Cohen has seen his obsession with helping entrepreneurs emerge into the worldwide movement of #givefirst which is redefining how mentors and companies interact with startups. Whenever I’m asked what the common characteristics of the best entrepreneurs I’ve ever been around are, I always begin with the obsessions which drove them.
It’s trite to try and articulate how challenging it is to rise to the top of any pursuit, whether it’s photography, sports, music or building a startup. Only those who have a healthy obsession make it to the top. That’s why more than anything else, I personally look for entrepreneurs who have a serious obsession about solving a problem. There’s so many obstacles to success that if you’re doing it for any reasons other than a very real obsession, the difficult periods will likely derail you. Passion’s not enough. Discover your passion and do it on weekends. If there’s a big enough problem that you’re truly obsessed with solving (I like to define obsession as the thing that makes you forget to eat and poop), give me a call and let’s talk about the startup you should be working on…