This is my last column on the psychology of the entrepreneurial spirit. Beginning next week I will examine family businesses and what makes them tick. The idea is to expose the inner workings of business founders and their problematic ties to their families, as skillfully as David Chase (The Sopranos) gave us an insider’s view of an illegal, primarily Italian, interdependent but hostile group of family business founders.
Before heading in that direction I want to dispel a number of bizarre notions that have dogged entrepreneurs since Horatio Alger’s novellas were best sellerse. I’m irked by such canards because I’m thinking about whether the kid in Texas should go to Acton MBA and do whatever he can to become an entrepreneur, or work for Dell, the business built by one of Texas’ stellar entrepreneurs. To help him decide, I’m setting the record straight:
1. To Be A Successful Entrepreneur You Must Invent Something Truly Novel. Wrong, but I doubt facts will stop achievement-obsessed upper-class parents from building “replica garages” for their kids’ play dates, to instill in them whatever made Hewlett & Packard and Jobs & Wozniak do what they did. Big Error! Why? Ask yourself what Sir Richard Branson invented, then remind yourself that Ted Turner didn’t invent TV news, all he did was perfect it and disseminate it (via CNN) brilliantly.
Entrepreneurs who build better mousetraps are the exception, not the rule. Most business builders look at the world, see things that can be improved upon, break the mold, and add value. They prod, poke, and push paradigms, infinitely more often than they cause cataclysmic shifts. Take the crème-filled cookie, now 100 years old: Everyone thinks that Oreo invented it because it dominates the market niche. Nope, it was Hydrox. Oreo was a Johnnie-come-lately to the game – but owing to better marketing and, some claim, a better recipe, Oreo now owns the space.
My favorite example of ideal entrepreneurial thinking is how EASTPAK USA morphed from a maker of top-of-the-line duffels and safety equipment for the US Army, to the nonpareil in the field of “book bag.” The visionary responsible for this killer change –the son of the CEO— took a product entrenched in a niche market (military bases), saw how to modify it to serve an infinitely, wider market (everyone carrying anything), and voilà— success!
2. Entrepreneurs Are Made, Not Born. This isn’t always Windex clear, but the answer is that entrepreneurs are born–not in terms of being a self-starter as soon as they’re popped from the womb. But, even the folks at Verizon running those brilliant “Susie Lemonade stand” commercials know that rumblings of “set me loose on the marketplace, Mom” emerge in “born” entrepreneurs long before they are driving themselves to high school. You see, certain character traits that enable business builders to behave as they do –with indefatigable focus, dogged persistence in the face of setbacks, and “deafness” to naysayers—become entrenched character structures early on in a person’s life.
3. Entrepreneurs Are Introverted Loners. No more than novelists or gymnasts. I’ll grant you that many entrepreneurs are quirky, and their reputation for being misanthropic is augmented by the fact that so many of them work in IT, genetic engineering, or pharmacology— not the sorts of enterprises that have weekly “wrap parties” like they do at TV studios. But do not confuse an entrepreneur’s extraordinary capacity for focus or absorption in his work with being anti-social.
Entrepreneurs can be the life of the party provided the party can serve as an incubator of ideas or source of funding. I’d bet anything that many of the ideas responsible for Apple’s early successes came from the Homebrew Computer Club that Jobs & Wozniak belonged to. See? Entrepreneurs are fun!
4. Entrepreneurs See Business Building As A Path To Riches. If that’s true, when is Mark Zuckerberg going to get himself a cashmere hoodie?
Yes, some entrepreneurs make a fortune and that’s as it should be. But anyone who thinks entrepreneurs wake up in the morning with designs on amassing wealth has never met one. They want status (smartest kid in the room), bragging rights (we do it best), and, ultimately, the power to change the world for the better. Even Steve Jobs –a guy who was so selfish in his youth he severed ties to a daughter and let her live in near poverty— grew a social consciousness as he matured.
My favorite example of an entrepreneur eschewing a lavish lifestyle is Pat McGovern, founder and Chairman of International Data Group (IDG). I did a lot of work for IDG in the 1980s and 1990s, and learned that McGovern was nothing, if not quirky, in how he viewed creature comforts. Although one senior executive owned a Rolls Royce and luxury home, McGovern enforced a policy that barred employees from expensing first class airfare, despite the fact that his various business units were spread around the world. So what does a billionaire who pinches pennies do with his wealth? Create the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT with a gift of $350 million. Granted, Ted Turner gave more to the United Nations, but heck; Ted knows how to have a good time. Folks at IDG joked about McGovern’s coach class edicts, but clearly his penurious policy served a grand purpose. That is the hallmark of an entrepreneur.
5. Nothing Succeeds Like Success. Wrong, at least insofar as entrepreneurs go. When you look at business builders, nothing breeds risk aversion like success. Nothing breeds hubris like success. Nothing kills entrepreneurial chutzpah like success.
You’ll have to go to history books to find the full story of Ken Olson’s genius, but I will tell you that this M.I.T. engineer built the best computers on earth in the 1970s.
His company, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), was the Apple of its day; its mini-computers replaced hulking mainframes and were beloved by businesses.
But success (market dominance) killed Olson’s entrepreneurial spirit and calcified his thinking: After a decade of being declared America’s #1 entrepreneur, Olson felt little need to listen when his engineers told him what Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were working on. Olson actually dismissed the new machine from Cupertino, calling it a “toy.” In 1977, Olson addressed a computer conference and displayed his warped thinking with the now famous line, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Today, DEC is a memory and everyone over the age of 5 uses a PC or Mac.
When I work with an entrepreneur I always tell him that the moment his start-up is funded he should start planning his encore enterprise. Why? Being in the black sends an entrepreneur the message, “you did it,” which is verbal Kryptonite to Super Business Builders. It doesn’t kill them, but does deprive them of the primary source of challenge in their lives. For high achievers, this can mean the death of self-esteem. I’m told that having your ego die is a fate worse than corporeal death.
6. Entrepreneurs Are Risk-taking Gamblers. Please; you’ve got to be kidding! When it comes to gambling, entrepreneurs will play only if they use their own marked deck. These guys are card-counters; control freaks who never go to a casino because they believe the house always wins.
What entrepreneurs get involved in is what’s different, untried, untested. They avoid, at all costs, the un-wise gamble. During their preparatory phase of business building –i.e. when they are in opportunity recognition mode— entrepreneurs are doing more calculations than a CPA does during tax season. Sir Richard Branson, founder of the highly diversified Virgin Enterprises, once observed, “Business opportunities are like buses; there’s always another one coming.” He could have said, “Look before you leap” to make the same point. That’s what entrepreneurs do; they wait for the right bus.
7. You Hate Bosses. That’s Reason Enough To Become An Entrepreneur. Not a chance. Contempt for authority is not the same thing as a fire-in-the-belly entrepreneurial spirit. It’s a character problem, at best, or a wellspring of liberalism at worst. I’m only half-teasing here: recall Anthony Weiner, the man who was caught having sent unsolicited cyberporn to several women, promised never to resign from Congress, then did to save his pension? That guy carried-around a boatload of contempt— for authority figures, women, and himself— and I guarantee you that the only way it will be of value to him is when (yes, when; not if) some loser cable network gives him a talk show. Weiner can never enter the realm of entrepreneurship because his contempt cannot be sublimated: it’s raw and on the surface, and he spends most of his time attempting to hurt others out of a sense of his own personal inadequacy.
When contempt is long buried like the stuff Steve Jobs carried around, it can fuel creative passion. From his Super Bowl commercial to NeXT , to Pixar and beyond, Jobs was a mean S.O.B., but one who used his anger to fuel productivity.
8. White-collar Professionals Don’t Become Entrepreneurs. Hello? Have you heard of Legalzoom.com? Does WedMD ring a bell? Granted, the status and golden handcuffs that come with most white-collar professions have proven to dampen the drive to express entrepreneurial passions, but this effect is not absolute. Believing, “I can see a better way…” is all the fuel you need to build a business, regardless of whether it’s a lemonade stand or a virtual “legal advice and guidance” firm. Oh, I forgot: you also need the guts demanded of someone who can work without a net and expect to have his ideas rebuffed more often than they are embraced. If you are a white-collar professional who has ever used the phrase, “Do you know who I am?” then entrepreneurship is not for you. If you believe that the only proper way to be known is through your deeds, today, you are encouraged to give business building a shot.
9. Men Make Better Entrepreneurs Than Women. This is a BIG LIE. I have never seen gender differences in entrepreneurial abilities save for the advantage women have in growing a business after it is launched. Women connect with each other naturally. Not so male entrepreneurs: they extend their reach to others for selfish, albeit not necessarily inappropriate reasons, such as, (a) to solicit funding, (b) discern if the competition is not ahead of them, or, (c) to trounce competitors if the answer to “b” is “yes.”
A woman’s orientation to business building is often characterized as the rising tide that lifts all ships. This isn’t the headline-grabbing sort of thing that gave Larry Ellison his reputation as a martial arts expert, sailor, and seducer of beautiful women. Ah, well, boys will be boys. In the long haul women have it right: build it better, provide benefits to all, and then bask in the joy of an extended family for as long as the Lord keeps you here.
10. With A Great Idea and Enthusiasm, Anyone Can Achieve Entrepreneurial Success. Wish that it was so, but alas, it is not. There are countless “good ideas” that die on the vine for one reason: lack of necessity. Without a market hungering for your product, however innovative you may think it is, or it may actually be, it won’t sell. Thomas Edison, one of, if not the world’s greatest entrepreneur, once said, “I never perfected an invention that I did not think about in terms of the service it might give others… I find out what the world needs, then I proceed to invent.”
This market orientation is why I didn’t even raise the myth that entrepreneurs are narcissistic; it’s an oxymoron. Authentic entrepreneurs look outside themselves to the world and search for ways to improve upon the status quo. Narcissists could give a hoot less about what anyone else thinks, feels, or wants. Thus, the guy who touts his entrepreneurial skill in countless P.R. or self-promotional campaigns is not the real deal. An authentic entrepreneur wants to be independent, in control, self-sufficient, and respected, to prevent the possibility that they will be emotionally wounded. Once that concern is addressed to their satisfaction, however, all they hunger for is the knowledge that their life’s work has contributed to making the world more livable for as many folks as possible.
I ask you: Can you beat that?
Article source: www.forbes.com