Mormon Missions: The Ultimate Startup Accelerators?

Posted by Neha Palacherla /August 8, 2013 / FounderTalk

This guest post was written as part of our FounderTalk series by Austen Allred, co-founder of Grasswire. Grasswire lets ordinary people create collaborative news reports by voting on and fact checking social media content in real time.

Three and a half years ago I woke up to a cold Ukrainian morning. It was negative twenty-five degrees outside as I looked at the planner that served as my daily schedule.

There was only one word written: “трактеровать.” This dreaded pseudo-Russian word was LDS (Mormon) missionary slang for “knocking on doors.” I shuddered as I noted how the Cyrillic letters spanned the entire page, contorting themselves unnaturally to fill the 11 AM to 9 PM time slots, leaving only a one-hour dinner break.

As Mormon missionaries, my companion and I were to spend nine hours that day knocking on doors.

It goes without saying that not everybody liked us – were I an outspoken Communist in an eastern Ukrainian mining city who pined for the glory days of the Soviet Union I wouldn’t be thrilled to open my door for a 19-year-old American boy trying to talk to me about his Christian religion either.

At night, I dragged my thick-soled shoes across the ice and back to our apartment, where someone had tried to erase a variety of obscenities written on the door. Unlocking the three dead bolts I stumbled over to the old Soviet couch and opened up my planner to see what tomorrow held, finding only the formidable blank page.

With all other options exhausted, I begrudgingly and meticulously stretched the letters to ensure that when I wrote “трактеровать” again so that it would leave no margin. The next day would be the exact same thing.

I was quoted in PandoDaily’s article on Mormon entrepreneurs as saying my two-year LDS mission is where I learned “the grind.” But perhaps “grind” isn’t the best word for it. Elon Musk likened starting a company to “chewing glass and staring into the abyss.” To me, the low points for startup founders feel like that lonely night in eastern Ukraine.

The essence of missionary work and the essence of entrepreneurship are the same – you get up the next day no matter what and you get it done. All along the way you doubt yourself, asking if you’re crazy, wondering if you’re up to the task, and realizing there’s a high likelihood you’ll fail, but you walk out the door and keep grinding even when it feels like you have nothing tangible to show for it.

A few months ago, after a quick launch of Grasswire, I found myself living in Silicon Valley as my co-founder and I tried to simultaneously raise money and rebuild our product to scale as quickly as the user base grew. Strapped for cash, with a marriage pending and reading too much Thoreau, I simply decided to live in the back of my Honda Civic. I only had a few hundred dollars to my name, but my burn rate was so low that we could make that last for a while.

Or so I thought.

It’s not every day that the car you call home breaks down on the 101 just hours before Barack Obama’s caravan pulls through, forcing you to tow it off the road before the Secret Service has it impounded. But for me, that day was toward the end of June.

I had to dip into credit cards I promised myself I wouldn’t touch to pay for the repair, leaving me with no money to live on and my home in a mechanic’s shop. Though the weather in Palo Alto is quite temperate, I found myself having another Ukrainian winter.

Only this time a little bit of the edge was gone. I had gone through things that were honestly more difficult than this while I was on the mission, and as long as I kept plugging away things had always worked out. I had no idea how, but I was sure that if I was scrappy, creative and worked hard I could pull myself out again. While no one would have blamed me for calling it a day, heading home and getting a “real” job, having everything hit the fan made me double down a little bit more. “I don’t know if you can just will a company into existence,” I told a close friend, “But I’m going to find out.”

A couple weeks later I found a ticket broker with 200 unsold tickets to a soccer game I would have loved to attend. I convinced him to let me scalp them on the street and keep fifty percent of the earnings. I spent an entire Saturday running around selling tickets on Craigslist and on the streets. I eventually earned the nickname “the ticket pimp” for wholesaling the tickets to the local scalpers who ran around Stanford stadium with their crew on bikes.

I sat in the single seat I had left over – in the second row. I watched a great soccer game, reveling in the fact that I had somehow kept the start-up dream alive.


And I can honestly say the only reason I was there, and the only reason I didn’t give up long before that point, was because of what I learned on the mission.

There are plenty of reasons Mormons missionaries tend to be entrepreneurs, and by extension why parts of Utah seem to have an uncanny knack for producing more companies than they should be able to. But as I look forward to the public launch of Grasswire and consider the investment offers we now have before us, I attribute the bulk of my success (debatably present and hopefully future) to my Mormon mission.