A box of keys

My dad has a big wooden crate of keys. Two crates, actually. Not metaphorical keys (although he’s a dad, so he has many of those too) — actual keys, a huge pile of old-school hotel keys from the 70s and 80s. Holiday Inns and Howard Johnsons. Wilkes-Barre and Las Vegas. Overland Park and Seoul. Keys with big, heavy oblong tags that promise to pay for the return postage if they’re dropped in a mailbox. Keys that insecurely display the addresses of the hotels — and the actual numbers of the rooms that the keys open.

My dad amassed his collection of keys from his constant business trips as he built six different startups over the decades.  

When I was a kid in the 70s, I loved to play with those keys. It was a treat every time my dad returned home and dropped another 2 or 3 hotel keys into the box. I’d look up the towns where he’d stayed on a map and maybe find his next flights in his monthly OAG flight schedule. (Oh, those inconvenient pre-Interweb days!) 

We’d giggle that he really wasn’t supposed to take those keys from the hotels, and then he’d make a silly, guilty face as he dropped yet another key into his wooden box. I’d chastise him if he came home with only one hotel key for our growing stash. My sister and I would play games with the box of keys, finding as many different states as we could among the keys — or looking for cities my dad visited multiple times.

I’m not sure what the hotel keys represented to my child self. They were probably just clues to the mysteries about the far-off places where my dad disappeared so regularly. But now those keys mean something very different to me. Every one of those keys was time my dad spent away from his four kids and wife. Each key was another sales call, another missed flight connection, another long-distance call home, another dinner on the road away from his family. In every return-postage tag there lives the fight to keep a startup alive — another tired night in a hotel when he may have wondered whether it was all worth it.

Most founders can instinctively understand the costs represented by my dad’s box of keys. Those hundreds of keys are small tokens of the daily tolls of entrepreneurship. No one could take those trips but my dad — because there’s no one to delegate to in a startup. Everyone on the team washes the dishes. It’s exhilarating but also exhausting.

Startup life is incredibly difficult and full of enormous sacrifices. My dad’s box of keys is a daily reminder that I and other investors in the entrepreneurial ecosystem need to respect the founder’s journey and offer the best possible chances for entrepreneurs to succeed.

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