I recently had the privilege of delivering the commencement address at Georgia Tech’s bachelor’s degree graduation ceremony. The opportunity was a significant one, since I received my master’s and Ph.D. in Computer Science from Georgia Tech and well understood the positive impact the university had on me.
In honoring the new graduates, I wanted to offer my advice as an entrepreneur and investor, hopefully motivating them to fulfill their own aspirations. I’m sharing these “lessons learned” with you now with the same heartfelt goal in mind.
Lesson 1: You can build something from nothing
I received my first life lesson when I was at Georgia Tech in grad school. I met a guy launching a cybersecurity startup and I joined the team early on. We were a handful of people who had an idea, drew it on a whiteboard, coded it in a computer, and began calling customers. In six years, we grew from nothing to a company with hundreds of employees and thousands of customers that was acquired for hundreds of millions of dollars.
In other words, you can build something from nothing.
That’s because software and technology equate to a near pure translation from human thought to something of value. Dream up an idea today, tell a computer what to do, and you’re solving a problem. You did it with no raw materials, no inheritance, no land. None of the things that have traditionally separated the haves from the have-nots, just pure creativity and execution.
This is the closest thing to equal opportunity our country has ever seen. When you realize the future is something you can make, instead of find, a world of possibilities opens up.
Lesson 2: Run into the fires
I’ve told you the happy ending about that company, but what I didn’t tell you is the humble beginning. I didn’t start as an executive with a corner office; I was instead offered a junior role with a junior salary, and a little junior cubicle to go with them.
You’ve likely heard that “opportunity only knocks once”—well, sometimes it doesn’t knock at all and you have to go looking for it. And if you don’t find it, then you have to create it.
When I finished my coding each day, I’d go to the person next to me to see what they were building and how I might help. Whenever I’d hear about a problem in the hallway, I’d ask if I could spend the weekend working on it. I realize now that what I was doing was finding the most difficult challenges and jumping in.
The lesson here is that when you identify the most pressing problems, don’t run from them—instead, run directly into them like a firefighter heading into a fire. This is how you have the greatest impact in whatever you choose to do.
Lesson 3: Never be comfortable
The next life lesson came a few years later, after the aforementioned company was acquired. I was an executive enjoying my corner office and life was good. It would’ve been easy to stop chasing fires. But the universe kept calling me to do something else, to find another problem to solve. So I left the fancy job, started over, and created another company.
Great philosophers have touched on the topic of chasing greatness. Benjamin Mays said, “Whatever you do, strive to do it so well that no [one] living and no [one] dead and no [one] yet to be born could do it any better.” Chasing greatness is uncomfortable. It is full of sacrifices and ups and downs.
Of course, I can’t tell you where greatness is found, and I can’t tell you where your dream actually lies. But I can tell you where it’s not. It’s not in your comfort zone. It’s not where conditions are perfect, or where you’re always right and rarely challenged. To do things worth doing, you must be okay with people believing you are wrong and okay with the world thinking your idea is crazy. Most ideas that are brilliant tomorrow seem crazy today.
Greatness doesn’t just happen. It’s developed, it’s pursued, and it takes time. Most of all, it’s a decision you make every single day. So, keep pursuing greatness and don’t let up.
Lesson 4: When things get hard, go harder
But what happens when you chase greatness, and you encounter a point of failure along the way?
Let me tell you when it happened to me. I went on to start a new mobile device security company. Things were going well, and then the unexpected happened. The financial markets crashed in 2008. Almost immediately, my partner and I realized we wouldn’t be able to raise the next round of funding in time. We weren’t going to be able to make payroll. And we had 40 employees which means 40 families counting on us. It was devastating and we were on the brink of going out of business. But we decided that this failure point would instead be our turning point.
We made the tough decision to use all of our personal savings to fund payroll and the company. We were effectively “all in,” and thankfully, over the next year revenue increased, the market turned around, and the company was successfully acquired. Our perseverance was the difference between success and failure.
While success is always the goal, above all do not fear failure. It’s one of our greatest teachers.
Failure tests our fortitude, forcing us to reach deeper within ourselves. It leaves us with that much less to lose, thus encouraging us to take risks we might not otherwise take. It pushes us to strive for what is sweet by giving us a taste of what is bitter.
Moments of truth happen when you respond to adversity by going harder.
Lesson 5: Bet on yourself
Several years ago, a Georgia Tech professor asked me to meet with a grad student named Vijay Balasubramaniyan. In one hand he had a research paper he had written and in the other hand, a job offer from a major tech company.
Vijay was faced with what I call “the dreamer’s dilemma,” which is the question of whether you’re going to take the risk of making your dream a reality or whether you’re going to work on someone else’s dream. Vijay decided to bet on himself.
We partnered to co-found Pindrop, which today is one of the largest security startups in the country. Pindrop employs more than 200 people and has raised hundreds of millions of dollars from investors. The product protects millions of people against cybercriminals, and all because someone at Georgia Tech decided to bet on themselves.
That outcome inspired me to devote my career to helping other entrepreneurs by investing in their companies and their dreams. It also led me to create Panoramic Ventures, the most active venture capital firm in the state.
The spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship lives in each and every one of us. Not just the spirit of it, but the possibility of it, and the reality. All we have to do is have the courage to follow our dreams and persevere, even when the going gets hard.
I hope these “life lessons” shared with the graduates of Georgia Tech will serve to inspire and propel you forward as well.
Dr. Paul Judge is Managing Partner of Panoramic Ventures, a venture capital firm based in Atlanta that takes a “wider-view” approach to investing by targeting the Southeast and Midwest and placing a focus on diverse founders and university startups. Panoramic also hosts Startup Showdown, a monthly series of pitch competitions open to early-stage software and tech-enabled services businesses.