Why all startup founders should wear an Indiana Jones fedora

When my wife asked me if I was interested in seeing Indiana Jones and The Dial of Destiny on Saturday, a tingle went up my leg, spine, shoulders and across my head. No, it wasn’t some horrible neurological episode, it was pure excitement at seeing the film and the thrill of going to the pictures.  Away from the scramble through the myriad of streaming service menus and recommendations to find something decent to watch, an actual big-screen, popcorn-serving, queuing-in-the-lobby movie venue and experience.

Someone in a uniform would rip our tickets, and we’d enter the cavernous room anticipating images, booming sounds and a story writ large. We live in a streaming world, content flowing into our brains via our devices. It’s an efficient transaction, made to order for our enhanced desire for more of everything and our declining tolerance for anything that doesn’t meet expectations immediately.

But streaming is not special in the way that big screen films are. The very inconvenience of seeing a movie in a cinema sets apart the experience. You’ve got to be inspired to get in your car, make the trip, gather in a queue, find your seat, put up with the chatter and rustling of sweet papers – and maybe even a snogging young couple in the row ahead – and risk being disappointed with the film. You can’t flick to another film after twenty minutes. There are stakes.

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is the finale for our adventure seeking maverick Dr Henry Walton ‘Indiana’ Jones Jr – Indy. A professor of archaeology with bullwhip, fedora, satchel and leather jacket, wry, witty and sarcastic sense of humour, deep knowledge of ancient civilisation and languages – and fear of snakes. George Lucas created the character in homage to the action heroes of the 1930s.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is where it all started. Directed by Stephen Spielberg, dodging poison darts, Indy Tarzan-swinging to a moving seaplane, the pilot’s pet python slithering onto his lap. Snakes! He hates them! Raiders remains a great film, a stunt and gag a minute, a hero brilliantly conceived from whip to theme-tune, and in the lead role fresh from playing Hans Solo in Star Wars, Harrison Ford, rugged features perspiring beneath that battered fedora.

The series drew originally on the memories of George Lucas, who grew up on the 1950s Saturday-morning cliffhanger serials in cinemas which ended each week with the hero in some tricky bind. Audiences rushed back the following Saturday – the old-school equivalent of binge-watching – to discover how he survived the quicksand/molten lava/attack by aliens. Paying homage to that format in Raiders, Lucas and Spielberg piled one daredevil escapade on another, with Ford the hero, with his scowl and What now? weariness providing the perfect comic counterpoint to the OTT action.

He’s actually a treasure hunter rather than a staid professor. His first adventure saw him pitted against Nazis seeking to recover artefacts from the Ark of the Covenant, which according to the Book of Exodus, contains the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.  The Nazis are led by Jones’ arch-rival, French archaeologist René Belloq, and Arnold Toht, a sinister Gestapo agent. In the final scene, Toht’s face melts like candle wax, before his remains are carried away by a sandy whirlwind. Great stuff!

Spoiler alert. The latest adventure has enough creepy-crawlies and cadavers to satisfy the faithful. Besides regret and affection, reconsidering classics can yield fresh insights, the nostalgia of the sequels, but I enjoyed Indy’s fifth and final caper. It is 1969 and he’s set to retire. Ford is 80, but he and Indy are put through the usual stunt-a-minute frenzy, taking breaths only for wisecracks and just enough dialogue and context for the plot to make sense, more or less.

Indy teams up with his goddaughter Helena who comes with her own sidekick, a Moroccan urchin, Teddy. The quarry is the Dial of Archimedes. The Antikythera mechanism is an Ancient Greek proto-computer dated to around 200BC, the much-sought-after device can identify ‘fissures in time’ and facilitate time travel. 

Basil Shaw tried during WWII to keep it out of German hands. Flash-forward to 1969 New York, and his daughter, Helena, pleads with her godfather, the retired, snowy-haired archaeology professor for his help finding Basil’s prized relic before the Nazis do. Yes, them again. The greatest-hits return for the finale: a rickety rope-bridge, giant eels in lieu of snakes, red lines on the map tracking Indy’s odyssey from Tangier to the Aegean. Happy viewing!

So, after five films, four decades and all those booby traps, cobwebby cadavers and cryptic clues,  the chases through the desert, bazars, mines, fisticuffs on the bonnets of trucks, the adventure is over. Whilst the main meaning of Indiana Jones lies in the joy he has given generations of viewers, he represents a swashbuckling modern day heroic entrepreneur. He’s filled with the allure of adventure, ignoring the reality, battling adversity, taking huge risks – with an unconventional spirit all in the name of searching for the elusive breakthrough against all the odds.

He sounds like a startup founder doesn’t he? imagine, Indiana Jones and Adventures in Entrepreneurship, what would the takeaways from his character and philosophy be for founders?

1. Think Different

He’s a maverick academic, filled with knowledge and ideas. Like a founder he stands for ideas that shape the future, ideas that reshape the sense of what’s possible with customers and investors. Funders that think different have a distinctive and disruptive sense of purpose – and the startups with the clearest sense of purpose win. The iconic Apple marketing phrase stands here. Steve Jobs demolished the cartel of the record industry with iTunes. It changed the way the world enjoys music, collects it and discovers new acts. Indy and Steve could be brothers.

2. Only action makes things happen

Founders can rhapsodise about the importance of innovation all day long, but if you’re not doing it,  it’s a moot point. Indy is an archaeologist, but he risked his life time and again, getting out in the field to make stuff happen. Similarly, if you’re looking to drive innovation, you have to take lead from the front and get stuck in. Actions speak louder than words, as Indy shows.

3. Failure is an option

While dodging various traps, baddies and escapades, Indy carefully calculated, planned, and navigated through each obstacle. Of course, whenever we thought he’d rescued a valuable piece of treasure, it just set off another cavalcade of troubles coming after him. Pure entertainment.

No matter how carefully you plan, you will make mistakes, or the unexpected will invite itself into the room. While these mistakes may be costly, you don’t want to create an environment where the tiniest slip-up sends a giant boulder hurling after you every time.  Success by failure is responsible for the Post-it notes and many other successful innovations. Like Indy, simply adjust your fedora and go again, but expected a bumpy ride.

4. Products need purpose

Aside from the occasional mummy, piece of pottery or ancient book, archaeology is usually only exciting to archaeologists. If the Ark of the Covenant weren’t capable of granting the Nazis the power to conquer the world, the US government wouldn’t have sent Indiana Jones after it.

Innovation is about creativity, but that creativity also needs to fill a market need. If you can’t sell your innovations, they’re not actually innovations. Today, an Ark with unlimited power is just a dusty artifact locked away in a secret military warehouse doing nothing. We know Indy isn’t happy with this outcome. When examining new innovations within your startup, determine their value before pursuing them any further. Who are the customers, who is going to pay? Don’t create something nobody wants.

5. Be resilient

Have you ever felt like your back was against the wall? And I’m not talking about a true-life Indiana Jones sort of experience where you’ve stepped into a room and activated an ancient counterweight that causes the walls to shift and begin to close in on you. There’s seemingly no way out and you can either await your doom or improvise a solution.

Perhaps you’re running low on cash. Maybe your top two team members are off, setting up shop across the street to become a competitor. In the face of adversity on an Indy scale, fiercely maintaining a positive frame of mind and keeping calm helps us keep a clear head for decision making. Then like Indy (with helpful CGI effects), we are able to pull the rabbit out of a hat whenever the need arises because we know that no challenge is insurmountable if we have the right mindset.

Ideas are the business for startups, but if you’re working to tap the brainpower of outside-the-mainstream contributors, then you have to work to keep your open-source project colourful, dramatic, and energetic by being a resilient leader. I think we see that clearly in Indy!

6. Be true to yourself

An unconventional spirit is the defining philosophy for founders. In an age of hyper-competition and non-stop innovation, the only way to stand out from the crowd is to stand for something truly unique – and that’s yourself. You can’t do big things if you’re content with doing things just a little better than everybody else. Originality has become the acid test of strategy, and it has to be bold and striking. Like Indy, if you’re not comfortable riding a galloping horse sat facing backwards, don’t bother riding the horse in the first place!

But today we’ve said farewell to the iconic and entertaining Indy. What are the thoughts he’s left me thinking about that apply to founders from his glorious adventures?

  • Indy has a distinctive and disruptive sense of purpose that sets him apart. What ideas are you and your startup fighting for?
  • I’ll miss Indy. If your startup went out of business tomorrow, who would miss you and why?
  • Indy inspires people around him. Are you a founder that other smart people want to work with? Stars don’t work for idiots.
  • Indy has a thirst for knowledge. Are you learning as fast as your world is changing?

Maverick founders don’t always want to be on the startup event circuit, paraded as paragons and seen at fireside chats talking about themselves. Mavericks do the work that matters most to themselves – the work of originality, creativity and experimentation. They demonstrate they can build sustainable, high growth companies around high ideals and fierce competitive ambitions.

For me, the most powerful way to create economic value in a startup is to embrace a set of values that go beyond just amassing personal profile, by being true to yourself. So be your own version of Indiana Jones and enjoy your Adventures in Entrepreneurship.

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