Foreshorten: to shorten by proportionately contracting in the direction of depth so that an illusion of projection or extension in space is obtained.
I recently had the opportunity to reconnect with a former colleague who is an executive with Intrinsic Therapeutics, an “early stage” medical device company, with a very clever technology. It is early stage in that they have launched the technology in Europe and are moving forward with the regulatory process in the U.S. However, product iterations and discussions with the FDA have lasted for more than a decade – so for the team and their investors it likely does not feel very “early”.
Our conversation brought me back to my experience as an entrepreneur and the challenges that we faced and eventually overcame. After 12 years in the med-tech space, I left to co-found a group of companies with my brother in the oil and gas sector, the primary being MaxTorque, LLC. We thought, “How hard can this be? Sure we will need to be smart, work long, hard hours and grind through tough times, but we can handle anything.”
It turns out it was a whole lot tougher then we had ever imagined. After a couple of years and the manufacturing recession of 2002, we found ourselves in the middle of a particularly rough patch in the business. I thought, “This is much, much harder than I ever thought it would be and I don’t see it improving anytime soon. I need to add something to my life that is more readily attainable – like climbing Mt. Everest.” This had been a dream since I was a boy and seemed infinitely more achievable at that moment than making our company a success.
Training for Mt. Everest
To prepare, I started taking courses in cold weather survival and ice climbing. Most of the early climbing was done on single pitches (a single rope length) of about 100 feet. The final challenge however, was a multi-pitch climb of several hundred feet.
Standing at the bottom of this particular climb, it looked like a long way up, but not that much further than our previous climbs. No problem I thought. Starting mid-morning, under the expert guidance of our instructor, we went through one pitch, then another, then another. Now 300 feet up, my hands and calves cramping and my arms screaming, I looked up…I still had a long, long way to go, in fact, another three pitches. Looking down was even more shocking… how in the world did we get up this high?
The only option was up as climbing down would take significantly longer and was much more dangerous. So after some encouraging words from the instructor, a rueful laugh, and several deep breaths, off we went eventually reaching the top.
While standing at the summit, our instructor quietly talked to another guide who happened to be there. With the sun setting, I looked over the edge and said to no one in particular, “Sheesh… it doesn’t even look that far. And it definitely didn’t look that far when we started out.”
The two of them laughed and said in knowing unison, “Foreshortening.”
While hiking down, the instructor shared an old adage in the climbing community, in essence, if it weren’t for foreshortening, nothing would ever have been climbed.
The Real Journey
I never did get to Everest. The business eventually took off and I became so busy that my boots sat untouched for years. We successfully built the company, eventually leading to a nice exit to Cameron International.
Sitting here today, looking over the edge of that experience, I can see how it might be possible to remember that the effort was not that long or difficult, but I know differently.
If most people knew how onerous starting and building a company would be, most would never attempt it. Similar to the mountains that never would have been climbed, think of the technologies and companies we would have lost out on if not for the intrepid souls who fell “victim” to the business equivalent of foreshortening.
My sense is that the folks at Intrinsic are on the final pitch of their long climb given that their impressive clinical study is complete and FDA review underway. I applaud them and all of the individuals and teams out there with the guts and persistence to keep going “up” when they realize that their journey is going to take much longer and be significantly harder than it appeared when starting out.