The best entrepreneurs and executives are those that are able – through both great training and great talent – to move efficiently and profitably from ideas to execution, and then from execution back to ideas and then back to re-focused execution.
The entrepreneurs to avoid are those overly focused only on ideas or only on execution.
Those focused too heavily on ideas don’t quickly and rigorously enough subject their ideas to the rumble and tumble of the marketplace. These are the great “idea men” who never get around to actually executing upon a plan.
Those entrepreneurs overly focused on execution are often too slow to react to fast-changing technological, marketplace or competitive conditions and thus miss adjacent, easy-to-see opportunities.
No, the best entrepreneurs and executives are both creative and task-focused, but not too little nor too much of either.
They make plans and they work them, but are not slaves to them.
They understand that great businesses are inspired by ideas, but their success is counted in cash.
They are, in essence, “idealistic capitalists,” believing that the best ideas, the best products, and the best services are also those that make the most money.
Entrepreneurs running businesses like these are few and far between for sure. But more often than not, they demonstrate five tell-tale signs, including:
5. They are Risk-Takers. The proper goal of an entrepreneur is not to run a small business in the common sense of the term. With the fear of sounding harsh, the best of them are minimally concerned with protecting their own "middle-class" lifestyles.
Rather, they understand that achieving greatly requires daring greatly, and that the worst outcome is not necessarily a flame-out failure, but rather a muddling along driven by too conservative managerial decision-making.
4. They are GREAT Teammates. Great entrepreneurs are not simply great technicians, but rather have the gift to attract, cultivate, and empower a multi-disciplinary, faceted, and well-meshed leadership team.
And this team together, in turn, creates a culture of achievement. The tone of this culture might be, and usually is, set by a charismatic founder. But its enduring success depends on how it can be replicated and maintained as the company grows, and as its founder's role becomes less pronounced.
3. They are Goldilocks-ish. While there are certainly outliers in this regard, the best entrepreneurial managers are not "too hot" nor "too cold."
They have had a few past successes and maybe a failure or two, and are now in that sweet spot between experience and wisdom, and youthful hunger and energy. They know what they know yet they still have the intellectual and emotional flexibility and curiosity to change and grow.
2. They are Technologists. Well-led modern companies leverage technology -- from CRM and ERP to SEO and SEM to scenario-planning and simulation -- to "best practice" their business models. Their leaders understand that "IT" is not just the domain of a geeky guy to call when computers can't boot up, but is rather the crucial skeleton of the organism of their business.
1. They are Pig-Headed, Determined, and Willing to Sacrifice To Be Successful. More than anything else, great entrepreneurs work hard.
They work nights. They work weekends. They work when they're sick. They work when they're tired. They work and work and work and then to paraphrase the great (and famously hard-working) golfer Gary Player, "The harder they work, the luckier they get."
Look for this quality above all else -- it is almost always the best predictor of the presence of the other qualities on this list, and of entrepreneurs that build companies that grow and last.
Arguably the best book ever written on the power of entrepreneurial capitalism - The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley - should be required reading by anyone interested in protecting and defending the free enterprise way of life.
In an awe-inspiring tour de force of exposition, Mr. Ridley takes the reader all the way back through human economic history.
Back to the 1st entrepreneurs who discovered fire and the copper axe, through the Phoenicians, through the great trading cultures of India and China before their long (and government induced) sleeps, through the age of the Medici and the early Dutch wellsprings of modern trade, through the 19th Century Industrial Revolution in England and Scotland, to the American Century and the dawns of the computer, information, and communication ages.
And from this tale of human history, Ridley makes the overwhelming case that the 2 key drivers of human prosperity since time immemorial have been innovation and trade.
Building on the seminal work of Clayton Christensen in the Innovator’s Dilemma, Ridley describes the innovation process and its economic value-add in very prosaic terms.
He points to innovations like Amazon’s ongoing transformation of the ecommerce experience – none of which would be considered breakthrough technology, but which in their aggregate have brought unprecedented consumer productivity gains.
And to eBay, whose core innovation was NOT the idea of online auctions as much as it was that a robust exchange of buyers and sellers could be attracted via pay-per-click advertising.
Ridley’s point is that the innovation that creates wealth - versus innovation that looks good on an academic’s or a politician’s whiteboard - is simply the abiding power of Adam Smith’s invisible hand made real.
Namely individuals and small teams tweaking the way things are done only so slightly for one purpose and one purpose only – to make a buck. Or a yuan. Or a rupee. Or a few pesos.
And because now for the first time in human history, there are billions of people thinking and working and collaborating in real time toward this basic human desire, the result is more prosperity for more human beings than at any time ever.
AND MUCH more excitingly, now that all of this entrepreneurship and innovation can be shared worldwide in an instant at the click of a button, the statistical odds are overwhelmingly in favor of everything just getting better!
As in more prosperity, better education, more safety from premature death and disease, and yes even more happiness.
For all of us, for our children, and our grandchildren.
As Mr. Ridley points out, most of our grandparents had standards of living not much greater than that of Zambians today. And by corollary, if current trends continue, the grandchildren of today's Zambians will have standard of living's equal to those of ours today.
And as for our grandchildren, well they will live in a world, like our grandparents before us, that we can only dream of.
And as Mr. Ridley proves conclusively in this wonderful book, for all of this it is the entrepreneurs and the innovators that we have to thank.
So if you are serious about participating in the great 21st Century boom, read Mr. Ridley’s book.
And thank your local, neighborhood entrepreneur. For it is he and she that are driving it.
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As evidenced by the recent $8 billion IPO of LinkedIN and the recent talk of a Facebook IPO being valued at greater than $100 billion, social networking is clearly one of the great communications revolutions in history.
AND it is driving the most revolutionary change in startup and small business financing since the birth of the venture capital industry in 1957.
That change is called crowdfunding.
If you are serious about starting and / or backing a new company, it is one that you MUST understand or you WILL fall behind.
At my company Growthink, our mission is "to help entrepreneurs succeed worldwide.” When I share this with folks, they often come back to me with "Who are these entrepreneurs that you help succeed?" Touché.
So who is and who isn't an entrepreneur?
I like Professor Arthur O'Sullivan's definition, from "Economics: Principles in Action" the best:
"An entrepreneur is a person who has possession of a new enterprise, venture or idea, and assumes significant accountability for the inherent risks and the outcome. He or she is an ambitious leader who combines land, labor, and capital to often create and market new goods or services."
Building on this, let's list out individuals that obviously fit this description.
First, the "obvious" entrepreneurs:
Individuals STARTING New Companies. New companies, startups of all shapes and forms, across all industries, all around the world. The classic "man (or woman) with a plan" entrepreneur.
In the U.S. alone, this represents the more than 6 million new businesses started every year, and the many, many millions more contemplated.
Thank heavens for all of them - according to a famous M.I.T study new business starts account for more than 2/3 of all net new job creation.
I was on a panel this last week with Mr. Marco Lucioni, CEO of Financiera Confianza, which focuses on making the kind of microfinance loans here in the United States that have completely transformed the jobs landscape in many developing countries.
Marco talked about the experience of Peru, a country where over 1.5 million jobs have been created from microfinance loans in the past 25 years, and the unemployment rate in that still very much developing country is now less than that here in the United States. Now that is the power of entrepreneurial job creation!
Individuals LEADING Small Companies. Per that M.I.T study, the other 1/3 of net new job creation comes from "gazelles," - the 641,000 U.S. firms with between 20 to 1,000 employees. They, along with startups, account for more than 62% of all private sector employment.
Anyone that has spent even a day at a growing, middle market company can literally breathe the entrepreneurship in the air. The best of them are led by deeply ambitious men and women walking the talk of American business.
Now very importantly, not all small business people are entrepreneurs. The key phrase in Professor O'Sullivan's definition when evaluating whether one is, or is not, is ambitious leader.
All of us know small business men and women - that while certainly possessing many wonderful attributes - it would be a big stretch to describe them as ambitious leaders.
The "Non-Obvious" Entrepreneurs
In some ways, those that demonstrate entrepreneurial leadership in the contexts of bigger business, philanthropy, and government are even more impressive than our obvious entrepreneurs. Examples include:
Individuals that are Accountable for Change and Growth at BIG companies. Into this category falls Executives like Wal-Mart’s CEO Mike Duke. Mr. Duke is certainly an ambitious leader with very, very significant accountability for risks and outcomes - $420 billion in revenues, 2.1 million employees - and to grow Wal-Mart even 5% annually requires creating a company every year that would rank in the top 100 largest companies in the country.
Individuals with Leadership and Change Responsibility in Organizations of All Types. The challenges of leadership and accountability exist in ANY organization taking on meaningful and challenging objectives.
Bono, arguably the world's best known philanthropic celebrity, is an entrepreneur on two fronts.
First, via his commitment to world-class creative output as the leader of the mega-rock band U2.
And he is an entrepreneur, via his unique effectiveness as an activist and spokesperson for big projects - third world debt relief, and AIDS and African development issues, among others.
Other examples of “philanthropic” entrepreneurs include Gary McDougal - former Partner at McKinsey - who later in his life re-engineered the broken Illinois welfare system and made it a model nation-wide.
Or how about Gail McGovern - President of the American Red Cross - thinks and works entrepreneurially everyday to expand the brand and effect of the organization beyond disaster relief.
Global Entrepreneurs. Now more than ever ambitious individuals worldwide strive to not just be entrepreneurs per the American way, but to take the best of what we do and how we think and add to it and candidly, then to crush us. And I say more power to them.
Because entrepreneurship as its essence is about creation, and the success of one entrepreneur ANYWHERE results in a better life for everyone EVERYWHERE.
Noted author and entrepreneur John Warrilow in his great new book, “Built to Sell: Creating a Business that Lasts Without You,” offers entrepreneurs and executives running companies of all sizes fantastic advice as to how to build businesses with high equity and long-lasting value.
Given that 70% of the U.S. economy is services, Warrilow has particularly insightful comments on the “hierarchy of revenues” and their relative equity value.
Warrilow ranks them from worst to best as follows:
No. 6: Consumables – As Warrilow says, “disposable items like toothpaste that customers purchase regularly but that they have no solid motivation to be brand-loyal toward.”
No. 5: Sunk Money Consumables - like razor blades, which are similar to consumables, but have the additional stickiness of the consumer investing in a platform in addition to simple brand-loyalty as being of higher stickiness and thus value than a “no cost of entry” subscription as is typical for most publications.
No. 4: Renewable Subscriptions - like magazines;
No. 3: Sunk Money Renewable Subscriptions - Warrilow flags the example of the Bloomberg terminal, where traders first buy or lease the terminal and then purchase an ongoing information subscription;
No. 2: Auto-Renewal Subscriptions - like #4 and #3 above, but with the aspect of forced continuity, or “good-til-cancelled” subscriptions.
Most subscriptions are now set up this way, but when the subscription is for something, like document storage, that is extremely difficult to switch / cancel once established, the value of an auto-renewal subscriptions grows exponentially.
No. 1: Contracts - the gold standard of recurring revenues, where a customer is locked in, by contract and by law, into an ongoing, recurring revenue relationship.
Warrilow’s full description of each of these types of recurring revenue and their relative merits can be read here.
How about Investors?
While Warrilow focuses most of his book and his analysis from the perspective of the entrepreneur and how to maximize their personal equity value, his analysis is equally valid for investors seeking emerging companies to back.
Businesses that are too project to project based, or based on hard to sell, hard to deliver, customized “solutions”, or too dependent upon the skills and relationships of their owners are almost always characterized by little equity and exit value.
In contrast, companies led by entrepreneurs that understand the hierarchy of customers and revenues - and are constantly moving their businesses ever upward on it - are the sellable, and thus the backable, ones.
Younger workers – the so-called Millenials or those born after 1982 - with all of their creative talent and intellectual savvy, and all of their flightiness and senses of entitlement - offer unique challenges and opportunities for 21st Century managers seeking to build well-functioning teams that work and win together.
Here are five best practices:
On Friday Silicon Valley Bank released a survey of 375 executives at startup technology companies in the 4 core venture capital investment sectors – Software/Internet, Hardware, Life Science, and Cleantech. Here is what they found:
Tech. Execs. Are Bullish. Two of three of them say that business conditions are better than they were last year, and three out of four expect things to get even better in the next 12 months. And listen up Washington - 83 percent of them plan to hire in the coming year. Hooray!
And They Believe as I do, that America’s Decline has Been Greatly Exaggerated. More than three in four of them see America as still the world innovation leader and the BEST place to start and grow a business.
In fact, the main competitive advantage that these startup executives see for doing business overseas is cost. On every other measure – quality of employees, the quality of the higher education system, and overall entrepreneurial mindset and culture, among others - the U.S. still comes out on top.
Money Still Makes the World Go Around. The top challenge listed across all respondents was access to financing. While things certainly are improving, these executives rightly believe that the amount of dollars flowing into emerging companies is still way too low.
The study notes that in 2010, venture capitalists invested $21.8 billion in 3,277 deals, and while this is certainly up from the death spiral period of the 2008-2009 period, it is still much less than the $30 billion average that venture funds were investing annually through most of the past decade.
And Government Just Gets in the Way. Next to money - and the related challenge of scaling operations for growth - the #1 challenge that startup executives point to is the regulatory / political environment.
Healthcare company executives in particular expressed deep regulatory exasperation:
“The FDA is by its very design killing innovation and entrepreneurship. Its very charter utterly excludes the notion of fostering development, opting instead for a one-way ratchet that can only lead to longer, more costly development cycles with no improvement in real safety for efficacy.”
“Our outlook is solely dependent on the FDA. We are doing well in Europe, but the processes for the U.S. FDA simply is broken and harming innovation.”
“I am 40 years in this business, and see an FDA approval pathway that will destroy our business, for no reason. I see futile attempts on our company’s part to obtain Chinese monetary support, while we give away our technology.”
In Sum, Startups Still Make the American Business World Go Round. As its executive summary notes, “High growth small business startups are the principal driver of net new job creation…they are responsible for creating entire new industries — from IT and semiconductors, to biotechnology, to online retailing, social media and cloud computing…”
“They improve our quality of life, by expanding access to information, providing higher quality goods and services, improving health care quality and access, and fostering a more sustainable environment and U.S. energy independence.”
I don’t think any of us could have said it better - the entire survey can and should be read here.
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To your success,
The founders of wildly successful companies - with their world-changing impacts and their awe-inspiring wealth creation - receive much well-earned praise and financial rewards for turning their great entrepreneurial visions into reality.
But what about those with 1-2 degrees of separation who also benefit immensely? Angel investors like Andy Bechtolsheim - who put $100,000 into Google in September 1998, a position now worth more than $1.7 billion.
Or someone like Mark Cuban, who rode the Internet wave perfectly, to the tune of selling Broadcast.com to Yahoo for $5.9 billion in Yahoo stock. Even better, he had the additional good luck to sell nearly all of that stock near the peak of the Internet bubble.
For that matter, how about Mikhail Prokhorov, now with a fortune estimated at over $18 billion, and other rags to riches stories like his driven by having the right friends at the right time?
Prokhorov as a young man had as his sponsor Deputy Prime Minister of Russia Vladimir Potanin - just as many of Russia’s largest state-owned enterprises were being privatized.
Prokhorov parlayed this relationship into a controlling interest in the huge Russian nickel business before it became a stand-alone publicly traded company. And he, like Mark Cuban had the additional boon of turning his equity stake into cash at the absolute right moment (and the circumstances of which are high comedy to say the least).
These stories of great luck and fortune are timelessly inspirational for entrepreneurs, investors, and dreamers everywhere.
At the same time, they are frustratingly vexing and opaque to turn from descriptive narrative to prescriptive guide.
I.E. – if it were only so simple doing “A,” and then having “B” magically appear.
But of course luck and good fortune - as a whole lot of business philosophers from Nassim Taleb to Malcolm Gladwell to Joshua Ramo have opined - just don’t work that way.
There is, however, a LOT that entrepreneurs can and must do to “let luck in,” and a recent post from author and speaker Stephen Shapiro offers three great ideas to do so:
1. Grasp the Critical Difference Between the Probability of ANY Good Thing, versus a SPECIFIC good thing, Happening. To illustrate, Shapiro puts a twist on the famous birthday example:
“…if you ask the question, “How many people do you need in a room to have a 50 percent chance that two people will have the same birthday?” Some people immediately assume it is half of 367, or roughly 184. While that is a logical guess, it is actually incorrect. In fact, you would only need 23 people. Shocking? Try it some time and see what happens. With just 40 people you will have a nearly 90 percent chance that two individuals will have the same birthday.
Now I’d like you to consider how many people you would need in a room to have a 50 percent chance that two people share a particular birthday? For example, I was born on April 25. How many people would I need to have in a room to have a 50 percent chance that there is another person with my exact birthday? Surprisingly, the number now increases to over 600.”
Shapiro’s business point? While specific goals and objectives are great, be careful to not limit the various permutations that a business journey might take to arrive at a desirous destination.
2. Understand the Difference between The Value of Planning, and being Wed to “A Plan.” Shapiro quotes General and Future President Dwight Eisenhower’s poignant quote that "In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable."
3. The Great Ones Above All Else, Act. All of the stories of business success are many things, but above all else they are tales of ACTION.
Of writing the code. Of making the investment. Of going to the conference. Of striking up the conversation with that beautiful stranger.
They are tales like those of the man I consider the American of all time - Theodore Roosevelt - famously described by Henry Adams as “more than any other man living within the range of notoriety, showed the singular primitive quality that belongs to ultimate matter--he was pure Act."
Now thinking and being like this does not guarantee that you will become a famous General, or President, or Billionaire, or a successful investor, or build a sellable company.
But the opposite is assured - that without cultivating the mindset of boldness, of action, of positive expectation, one runs the serious risk of, as Roosevelt himself said best, of being “with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
Businesses that sell do 5 things very, very well:
#5. They Are Cause, and Not Money, Driven. Highly valued companies are culturally cohesive and have causes beyond money that motivates them.
Take a look at the famous mission statements below and how these company’s iconic brands align with them:
Google: “To make the world's information universally accessible and useful"
Facebook: “To give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected"
Zappos: “To provide the best customer service possible”
Southwest Airlines: “To fly safe, with high frequency, low-cost flights that can get passengers to their destinations on time and often closer to their destination”
Disney: “To create happiness by providing the finest in entertainment for people of all ages, everywhere"
An acid test of a business’ “above the line” value is whether or not its mission and brand have similar alignment.
Now if you have neither a brand nor a mission and yet harbor a dream of a business exit, then it is time to get to work.
#4. They Have Valuable Intellectual Property. Companies rich in intellectual property in all its forms – patents, processes, and people – attain purchase offers on factors other than last year’s earnings.
Try this on for size – an analysis of over 300 patents acquired between 2002-2008 found an average price per patent of $383,000!
The lesson is clear - whether you are in a low or high-tech business, ask yourself daily what is proprietary about what you do and how you do it and then work to protect it.
#3. They Communicate VERY Bright Futures. Businesses that sell for high multiples communicate exciting future, profitable growth.
The focus is on the word communicate. The value of a business can be doubled and tripled and more simply by credibly and excitedly forecasting its growth.
This is not easy – it requires managers to demonstrate deep understandings of the impact of the big 21st century “macros” – technology and globalization, and the micros, especially how their companies will become learning organizations that adapt and grow as change happens.
All this translates into a well-developed story that there is gold (and a lot of it!) at the end of their business rainbow.
#2. They Are “Cleanly” Managed and Run. A business, like a great product or service, must be cleanly packaged, neatly wrapped, to attract its highest price.
So if you are selling at a high price, no messy financial statements because of poor accounting, no incomplete or shoddy corporate records because of poor or non-existent legal counsel, and no boring or lacking in credibility “future stories” because of poor exit planning and investment banking advice.
And oh yes, it is very hard to “clean up” a business at the time of sale – to do it right the work must be done in real time and / or started years before a sale is contemplated.
#1. They Are Lucky. Entrepreneurs and executives that build sellable companies embrace the role of luck in business success.
They cultivate a mindset of positive expectation – a firm and abiding belief that they will either find a way or make one.
Goethe said it best:
“Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now."
So how about you?
The elephant in the room when it comes to entrepreneurship and small business is FAILURE.
The statistics are only debated to their degree but not their overall thrust – a very small percentage of businesses ever become meaningfully profitable and a smaller percentage still are ever sold for a meaningful price.
In other words, the vast majority of businesses – by objective, financial measures – fail.
Even worse, a lot them fail badly –never achieving even one dollar in revenue and / or go so deeply in the hole that they have significant and negative financial spillover effects.
Like business and personal bankruptcies and investors losing all of their money.
In a word, business failure is traumatic. Now it is not the kind of trauma that survivors of war and natural disasters experience, but in the world of work it can be about as bad as it gets.
Yet…Americans today are starting businesses at a greater rate than at any time in the last 15 years. 3% of the U.S. adult population annually start one, and a multiple of that dream about doing so.
So what gives?
Well, in a previous column I offered the financial view, namely that the rewards of a business sale are so great and life-changing that having any probability of their occurrence make the grave financial risks of business - building more than worth taking.
This I call the “American Idol” theory of entrepreneurship and small business….:)
But this, at best, only explains half of the story.
No, there is something else going on here, and new research regarding of all things – Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, points to what it is.
Ground-breaking research, done by among-others Dr. Richard Tedeschi of the University of North Carolina, shows that strong, negative experiences like war and natural disasters are NOT as scarring as once thought.
In fact, the exact opposite is true. Statistically, most survivors of traumatic experiences – think prisoners-of-war and tsunami victims – come out of them stronger and on most measures, out-perform those in their peer groups unaffected by the awful events.
All I can say is wow.
Now everyday all of us should count our blessings dozens of times as “there but for fortune go I’ and offer nothing but great compassion and empathy for those suffering trauma, especially when it comes through no fault of their own.
But we also should take significant solace and inspiration from the rest of the story.
Life, as it does, goes on. And according to the latest research, the old adage is true of that which does not kill you REALLY does make you stronger.
Now it would not be proper to equate a business failure with the physical and emotional traumas experienced by survivors of war and disaster, but entrepreneurs and executives can and should draw important wisdom from them.
Such as if you “fail” at this particular business, you won’t be broken and scarred forever.
And that professional and entrepreneurial growth is a participatory sport – learned only by doing and trying and striving and not by watching and fretting and waiting.
And then there are the related ideas of diversification and iteration.
Such as, in business, it is almost always far better to have four business “failures” and ONE success than it is to go zero for zero.
For the entrepreneur this does not necessarily mean running multiple businesses concurrently, but it does mean that the business strategy should be iterative and testing based. Successful internet companies get this intuitively – see Amazon and eBay and thousands of others - and you should too.
As for investors, they should take advantage of the incredible opportunity that the modern financial system offers to back multiple entrepreneurial companies, and not just one or a handful.
With the average return of the private equity investing asset class in some cases being over 27% annually (Right Side Capital), the odds are strongly in your favor if you both invest right and diversify properly.
So entrepreneurs and investors get in the game!
Failure is no way near as bad as advertised and if approached with the right spirit and strategy, it can truly be the ultimate blessing in disguise.