July 24, 2009

The Mind of the Entrepreneur

After working within, with, for, or around corporations for over 20 years, I think I have a good handle on how things work in that environment. Roles are defined. Territories are drawn. Timelines are (mostly) prepared for. Corporations don’t all tick the same way, but there’s an order to the madness. There’s definitely madness, but order too.

This is how it goes.

The strategists stand atop the hills with their binoculars, and take the news to the guy sitting behind the hill at the big desk (the CEO) that the course of action to find the mountain of gold is north-to-the-northwest. They send out the land surveyors (market researchers) to come back with the topography and news of the people of the land (focus groups). Product managers are engaged to measure, define, and map out the course of action. They navigate up and down the hills to ensure safety and reliability of the road to be built. Teams and teams of road builders (engineers) are brought in to build the road. The engineers complain about the roadmaps. They complain about the timelines. They bang the product managers on the head, and the product managers bang them on the head. In the meantime, the crazy speed drivers (sales) are anxiously awaiting the completion of the road project so they can jump on the road and get to the destination to get their cookies (commissions). The one with the most cookies gets his name on the top of the corkboard in the coffee room, and that’s really important. Their coach (the sales VP) used to be one of these speed drivers himself, but he’s either too old or too tired to do that crazy stuff any more (and hey, it's a good title!), so he waits for his drivers to bring him some of the cookie crumbs.


The engineers discuss every ¼ inch of the road. If it’s not built properly, the speed drivers won’t make it all the way to the end. The product managers wonder why they don’t get any cookies if they know the road better than anyone else. The cheerleaders (public relations) await at the roadside with their pompoms to let the world know of the team’s progress. The bean counter (CFO) complains about high food and water consumption ($$). A group of elders at the bottom of the hill (the board) complains to the guy at the big desk (CEO) that the other team (the competition) is building their road faster and better. The strategist is called back to the desk of the guy sitting behind the hill (CEO) and convinces him that he has sent spies (market analysts) to the other side and ensures him that there is more gold at the end of this road than anybody else’s.

It works. Things somehow work out, and sooner or later, the crazy drivers are on the road jamming towards north-to-the-northwest.

Enter the entrepreneur.

He’s heard there’s some gold in the valley.

With a couple of his college buddies, he takes a backpack with some food and water, and hits the valley. The strategist says, you have no idea where you going. And he says, I’ll figure it out, you’re taking too much time analyzing. The bean counter says, you don’t have enough food or water. And he says don’t worry, we’re lean and mean; we’ll survive. The product managers say, you don’t have a roadmap, how will you get there? And he says, process, process! I’ll figure it out. The land surveyors (market researchers) don’t talk to the entrepreneurs. They don’t get along. The engineers say, you need a road to drive on. And he says, I’ll walk through the dirt and the mud, and I'll make it.

Bloody and thirsty and tired, halfway through the valley, they run into some people with piles and piles of food and water (VCs). They return to the engineers and convince a few of them that if they go hungry and thirsty for a while, they’ll have a pot of gold at the end of the project. The engineers build a dirt road (prototype) and with much enthusiasm, the entrepreneurs convince the VCs that if they give them enough food and water, this road will take everyone to a huge mountain of gold. The VCs who are more accustomed to counting their food and water than building roads decide that the vitality and enthusiasm of the team will get them to the gold. And, hey, they have a dirt road to drive on!

Factoids: Len Bosack and Sandy Lerner presented their new product to over 120 VC groups to finally get funding. Their company: Cisco. eToys, one of the failed darlings of the dot.bomb era, was backed by sterling VC names such as Idealab, Highland Capital Partners LLC and Sequoia Capital Partners.

OK, back to the entrepreneurs.

You can say that they’re kind of crazy. With a lot of drive and immense optimism, and an appetite for risk taking, they are convinced that they’ll make it to the end. Bloody and thirsty, they navigate unknown territories in pursuit of their dreams. So do they make it? Mostly not. Reports show that over 50% of new ventures don’t make it past the first five years. I find this a conservative number since it doesn’t account for all those “garage” projects where the family savings is depleted, the credit cards are maxed out, and the parents, uncles, and grandparents have “invested” in the enthusiasm of their loved ones. Risk baby, it's all about risk.

You just can’t learn this kind of crazy. Which reminds me… if you’re a 26-year-old with a degree in “entrepreneurship”, just know that these educational programs are developed by high-brow universities to make your parents feel better for forking out exorbitant fees for your education. You might be better off buying yourself a nice suite to hit the interview trail. I'm just saying.

Factoid: both Bill Gates (Microsoft founder, in case you hadn’t heard) and Fred Smith (FedEx founder) dropped out of Harvard to pursue their dreams.

No, you can’t learn this kind of crazy.

Not counting the taco stands and the plumbing shops out there, there are a lot of successful entrepreneurs around us. Their success is the result of a combination of perseverance, intelligence, luck, and knowing when to seize their luck. And serial successful entrepreneurs must have a better sense of order, a better sense of how that road should be built, and where it should go. Serial success definitely doesn't happen by accident - risk or no risk.

So next time you run into an entrepreneur, please do them a favor and hand them a bottle of water. They’ll thank you for it. And you just might get lucky with a few gold coins when they’re done.

Disclaimer to my clients: the characters in this blog are purely fictional and are not based on any real or partially real people I’ve ever come across in my real or imaginary work life.

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