Being an entrepreneur can feel like the scariest thing imaginable. Knowing that every decision could mean financial ruin, public embarrassment, losing your friends’ and family’s money and result in a permanent career stain is enough to keep even the most even keeled person awake at night. But in the full spectrum of human experience the consequences of business failure are actually quite benign.
Nothing makes you realize this better than a life and death situation. That was my main takeaway with my recent conversation with Elie Finegold. As the former head of global innovation at the largest commercial real estate services firm in the world, CBRE, he knew a little about risk of failure. “I had to go to the heads of this giant organization and tell them that I was going to fail on a few bets,” he explained. “If you’re not failing, you’re not innovating because you’re not pushing the limits. It is as simple as that.” While he was able to navigate the stress of making risky early-stage technology bets inside an inherently risk averse organization, it was nothing compared to what life was about to throw at him.
Last fall Hurricane Irma barreled into the Caribbean, disabling many of the islands in its path. Elie knew the situation would be especially bad for one of his closest friends and former business partner, Clovis Tobias, who lived on St. Thomas and had diabetes. When Clovis had to be evacuated from St. Thomas to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and then was going to have his leg amputated, Elie sprung into action and flew to be with his friend, despite the potential approach of what was then a Category 1 Hurricane Maria. After arriving at his friend’s bedside just after surgery, Elie suddenly realized that bigger trouble was on the way. Just two days after Clovis’ surgery, Hurricane Maria had grown to a Category V and hit Puerto Rico with its full force.
Elie was trapped in his hotel on the other side of the city from the flooded hospital which had lost power and most of its medical staff. Even so Elie was determined to help his friend. He used social media to tap into his network to get help in this dire situation. Eventually long-time associate Andrew Farkas was able to send a private jet that would relocate Clovis to a fully functioning hospital in Florida.
“I mobilized hundreds of people to help us, through the support of others, and because I kept trying something new every hour, every day, without giving up, eventually I succeeded.”
I wish that I could say that the flight out of San Juan on a private jet was the end of the drama. Tragically, Clovis died less than three months later. I can’t imagine what a somber end this must have been for the emotional ping-pong match that had led up to it. Looking back, even with the eventual loss of his friend, Elie views his effort as a win, ”I spent more than a week in Puerto Rico trying to do the impossible – rescue a barely conscious recent amputee from an inaccessible hospital with no power, on a destroyed island with no transportation, communications or flights. Every day I woke up afraid that if I didn’t succeed my friend would die. And every night I went to bed with a failure. But I mobilized hundreds of people to help us, through the support of others, and because I kept trying something new every hour, every day, without giving up, eventually I succeeded.”
After this dramatic episode, Elie decided to take a step back from the PropTech industry. He used his time away to reflect on what really matters in life. How failure can solidify into fortitude. How fear can itself be a gale force wind which can either fill one’s sails or blow their rigging to pieces.
Luckily for the entire PropTech community, he has decided to renew the pursuit of his passion for innovation and is now settling into a new role as entrepreneur in residence at real estate technology VC/accelerator MetaProp NYC.
Elie’s perspectives on entrepreneurship are just as unique as his experiences. In a world of early-stage investors seeking investment in billion dollar unicorns, he sees value in companies that are able to generate consistent revenue. “It’s silly for every tech investor to only look for unicorns. There is nothing wrong with finding companies that can become valuable by solving a small problem. One of the reasons the behemoths are called unicorns is that they are almost impossible to find.”
This is a not something that you hear from a lot of tech investors and it isn’t only Elie’s near-death experiences that helped him shape this opinion. His time at CBRE showed him how valuable new ideas are to big players in commercial real estate. “I think our industry is a little too young to see private equity rollups but I do think that a lot of startups can have great exits without IPOs thanks to larger companies willing to pony up to find new solutions.”
Even after being confronted with a fear far greater than business failure Elie still thinks that fear has a place in entrepreneurship. He emailed me some profound thoughts after our conversation that I found myself pondering long after: “Have a sense of urgency, be prepared, be fully committed, seek the help of others, pull others up and along with you, learn from every failure, and don’t stop until you have it solved. True in business, true in hurricanes.”
Starting a business can feel like being in a hurricane. The odds can feel impossible. The calamities seem to never stop. But sometimes the impossible odds and the neverending setbacks are a source for motivation. They can be the push to keep fighting. Because, in the end, the most impossible goals are also the most rewarding. Fear of failure never goes away, but when it comes to things of grave importance, it is nothing compared to the regret that comes not trying at all.