The Valley of Death and the Art of the Pitch


Imagine waking up each morning to a conundrum. You are a traveler making your way through a stark, unforgiving valley and you don’t know the way out. There is the sky above you, steep mountains that surround you, and the earth beneath your feet.

You start each day trying to gauge your progress. There are clues left on the trails where other travelers have been, but the valley itself has shifted. The mountains lengthen, shorten, disappear, or appear every so often, just to keep it interesting. The path someone else took that let them out of the valley may no longer exist. The things you did last week that brought you closer to exiting may no longer work because that exit may no longer exist. There is precious little food or water and starvation is a real possibility—even a probability.

Every day, thousands of people make their way through this valley. They are entrepreneurs engaged in one of life’s most addictive, frustrating, and rewarding pursuits. Originally coined by Stephen Markham, the entrepreneurial term “Valley of Death” is the time between starting a business and finding a sustainable and scalable business model. During that time, the business is typically not generating enough revenue to cover its costs. As a result, it is unlikely to attract significant investment. It is a deadly cycle—most startups do not survive. Negotiating startup entrepreneurship has been the focus of the burgeoning Lean Startup movement. What is missing from those conversations is an examination of the human side of the journey.

Last year, I conducted a study of Detroit-based early-stage startups. I am an anthropologist and my discipline involves the study of people. My focus is on discovering the sociocultural aspects of startup entrepreneurship. I believe that finding out more about how we create businesses will tell us more about ourselves.

In my research, I found that there is one undeniable truth: All businesses—from Google to newly formed ventures—are powerful, meaningful ideas, but they do not have physical form. Much of what entrepreneurs do when they form their companies involves associating artifacts with their business in order to give them substance. Materiality enables other people to interact with their company. These artifacts might … Next Page »

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Dr. Marlo Rencher is CEO of Good Sweat, a social fundraising platform for charity sports participants—people who run, walk and move for a cause. She is also a business anthropologist interested in entrepreneurship, technology and culture. Follow her on Twitter at @marlorencher. Follow @

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