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The below extract is taken from Matthew Buckland’s “So You Want To Build A Startup”, out now in book stores (see details below).
You think it’s never going to happen to you. But it’s happening to me.
I know from my own experience that building a business is an arduous struggle, but life has suddenly thrown me a new, unexpected challenge. It is the biggest fight of my life, for my life — and, unlike my leap into entrepreneurship, this is not a challenge I have chosen.
As I write this, my hair is falling out and there are bits of it on my keyboard. It’s a reminder that all is not well.
While on business in Jakarta in mid-2018, during a session with one of my MDIF (Media Development Investment Fund — Ed) clients, I noticed that food was periodically getting stuck in my throat. I could get food down, and it wasn’t sore, but it was irritating.
‘I need to engage the same drive I had in creating my business to win this toughest of fights’
When I returned to Cape Town, I went to my doctor, who initially thought it was some kind of thrush or bacterial infection that I had picked up while in tropical Indonesia or mountain biking through tea plantations near the inland city of Bogor.
My blood tests came back negative for the bad stuff like cancer or diabetes, but I was advised to have a gastroscopy if the condition didn’t clear up in a month.
‘As fit as a newly funded startup’
It never occurred to anyone, including me, that I could be seriously ill. Just three months earlier, I had completed one of Europe’s toughest mountain-biking races, the Transalp. This seven-day event covers more than 600 kilometres and includes 18 000 metres of climbing through Austria, Switzerland and across the Alps to Italy.
According to the cycling app Strava, with all the training I had done in the first half of that year, I had cycled a total distance of 6 620 kilometres and ridden for about 382 hours, with an elevation gain of about 125 700 metres. That’s roughly the equivalent of cycling all the way from Cape Town to Lagos.
For me, completing the Transalp is a perfect metaphor for entrepreneurship. Hard work, perseverance and grind are what get you there. It’s quite simple: what you put in, you get out, and you then better get at it.
I had been on a high since returning from the Transalp and had been smashing records everywhere due to my new level of fitness. I’d ridden some of the famous and contested mountain climbs around Cape Town’s well-known Silvermine and Tokai bike routes, and found myself among the top 5-10% of riders on some of the big, iconic hills. Indeed, hard work pays off.
At the age of 44, I was as fit as a newly funded startup, and had conquered my objective of creating, building and selling my business. I felt I had reached one of my pinnacles in terms of business achievement.
I made enough money from the multimillion-dollar sale of my company to never need to work again; I have a new exciting challenge in Burn Media, which is starting to perform and showing signs of a turnaround; and I have the flexible job of my dreams travelling the world for the media-investment fund MDIF. Life couldn’t be any better.
‘Things will never be the same again’
But what I didn’t know at the time is that I have a very serious disease. Even though I didn’t feel it, my health is under tremendous threat.
A gastroscopy revealed that I have a malignant cancerous tumour in my oesophagus, and further scans revealed that the aggressive growth has spread to parts of my liver and the edge of my lungs. The doctors advised me that I have “inoperable and incurable” stage 4 cancer. From this point forward, advised the oncologist on our first meeting, “your life as you know it will be turned upside down”.
I don’t know how I got cancer, and I often ask myself if there is any use in wondering about it. I didn’t smoke and was only a moderate drinker — and there is no history of the disease in my family.
Dr Google indicates that oesophageal cancer can be caused by reflux or heartburn as stomach acid enters the oesophagus. And I recalled my early days at Creative Spark, when I would get intense heartburn and reflux during periods of extreme stress while I was building the business.
But to blame my sickness solely on my business would be an oversimplification. Admittedly, I had managed my stress poorly, with my intense need to control outcomes and my relentless pursuit of my objective. But, in reality, there can be many causes of this cancer.
The doctors say mine is a difficult cancer to diagnose early on because the symptoms almost always present themselves late in the day. Usually the malignancy first appears at the bottom of the oesophagus and then spreads its dark tentacles through a healthy body without detection.
Certainly I had no suspicion that I have cancer. I remember the gastroenterologist passing me the results of the gastroscopy. He knew the diagnosis already, while I did not.
He looked at me sitting there typing away on my laptop and asked, “Are you okay?” I looked up at him, smiled and said, “I’m fine — I feel shipshape, actually”. A look of disbelief crossed his face as he replied, “Okay, I’ll see you in a minute.”
When the doctor finally delivered the news of the diagnosis in his office, my world seemed to collapse around me. I clearly remember that my ears were ringing, as if a bomb had just gone off in my head. Otherwise the shock left me feeling numb.
As we pragmatically discussed the next steps, I fixated on the doctor’s happy-family photographs perfectly arranged on the wall behind him, and felt sad and resentful. That innocent, happy-family feeling is all but gone for us now, I thought. Things will never be the same again.
My new fight
Once the initial shock had worn off, I had a chance to absorb the news, take comfort from my family and prepare for this new fight.
What came to mind was Melissa’s (Melissa Chetty — former Creative Spark employee who started the firm’s Joburg office — Ed) favourite phrase during the tough times at Creative Spark: “It’s time to put on my big-girl panties”. Indeed, some very big big-girl panties is what I need for this particular battle.
My squiggly-line graph of success has taken a huge dip. But I have come to realise that I need to use all my energy and willpower to make sure I don’t get lost in the horrifying maze of downward-pointing squiggles.
‘Matthew, you must ignore the statistics. You are in the top 5% of business and the top 5% of cycling, so see yourself in the top 5% in fighting this thing.’
It is critical for me to remember in which direction “success” lies. In short, I need to engage the same drive I had in creating my business to win this toughest of fights.
My doctor, the former Irish international rugby player Dion O’Cuinnegan, told me to ignore the stats on Google that effectively told me I had only three months to a year to live.
He put it to me this way: “Matthew, you must ignore the statistics. You are in the top 5% of business and the top 5% of cycling, so see yourself in the top 5% in fighting this thing. Don’t look at the stats. You are an outlier in this fight.”
I thought these were overly generous statements from O’Cuinnegan, but they are words I needed to hear and I desperately grabbed on to them. They have become my new driving motto of hope, the hope that I need to bear the odds, and to overcome this terrifying and debilitating condition.
This article originally appeared on Ventureburn.
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*Sadly Matthew our founder (or Matt as he was known to all close and dear to him), passed away just over four months after writing these words, on 23 April 2018. He will be sorely missed by all.
‘So You Want to Build A Startup’ retails for R295 and is available in all major bookstore in South Africa (it can also be ordered on Amazon, Takealot and Loot), but Memeburn is giving away three free copies.
To stand a chance to get a free copy email email@example.com and simply let us know whether you are an investor, entrepreneur or observer and tell us:
- What are the best things about startups in Africa.
- What are the most frustrating things about startups in Africa.
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Feature image: Memeburn/Burn Media