William Faulkner, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature said this when interviewed by the Paris Review:
Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him.
It’s interesting to look at a quote from William Faulkner and think about it in terms of technology startups, but bear with me a moment. I’ve been involved in multiple startups, and the one thing never lacking is advice. I should rephrase that. The one thing never lacking is advice filled with criticism and warning. The business sections of bookstores are filled with it and filled with “revolutionary” solutions to every problem and issue one could face in business.
Before you get ready to leave me angry comments that we’re not writers in the technology startup world, I recognize that. However, I think there are parallels that can be drawn. I really want to focus on the part that begins with “Teach yourself…” I think the one quality I find in all successful entrepreneurs is an absolute refusal to believe in the possibility of ultimate failure. They recognize there will be minor failures along the way, but they refuse to believe those minor failures indicate the overall failure of the concept or the plan. On the contrary, their mistakes are worn like a badge commemorating experiences that will lead to eventual success.
I’m not against receiving or asking for advice, and I think that’s probably the difference between being a writer and a businessman, but I have to confess to that supreme vanity Faulkner discusses. What is more vain than believing you can take a business concept and turn it into profit? What is more vain than believing your product can revolutionize an industry? What is more vain than believing your grand plan will succeed where thousands before you have failed?
I suppose what it comes down to is one simple fact. Entrepreneurialism requires at its very core a bit of a willful (to use a literary term) suspension of disbelief. We take our doubts and those expressed by others and drive them deep below the surface. Sure, they’re there, but we act as though they aren’t and drive forward to make our dreams reality.
By Tom Fedro
When you’ve spent a great deal of your life attempting to create value in the technology world, you tend to get an interesting perspective on life. Over the last forty years or so, the computer revolution has moved from “wouldn’t it be cool if…” to “developing solutions for integrated operational support.” The industry has matured from scattered groups of tech-savvy dreamers to operations-savvy businesspersons. This marriage of technology and management would have been useful in the late nineties when it seemed like labeling a company with the word “tech” brought visions of multi-millionaire investors and soaring stocks. Innovation without business perspective, though, is ultimately a recipe for failure, and success or failure in technology falls squarely on the business fundamentals side of the equation.
This isn’t to say that the technology lacks importance. I’ve made a career out of constant attention to development and innovation. You’re not going to find a more committed advocate for technology advancement than me. The problem is that those of us who focus on technology tend to do so at the exclusion of all else. How many times have you seen a techie rush into your office singing the praises of some new feature or functionality that really has no business impact at all? Excitement exists for the technological advancement rather than the value of the enhancement. A feature that isn’t used is wasted code, but how often does the real business implication of our work get lost in the challenge. We’re so busy trying to find out if we can do something that we forget to determine why we should do it in the first place.
You see it in more than the technology sector. Automotive elements, as seen on TV’s latest fix, and even the food industry flavors of the month all come and go. Technology, though, seems uniquely geared toward activity rather than action, toward busy-ness rather than business. Strangely, we can interview stakeholders to pull together a deep needs analysis. We can create elaborate and extensive flow charts and mind maps to drive software development. We can be remarkably organized while focusing on our immediate objectives. Why then do technology companies tend to dismiss the business issues we claim we’re here to enhance?
Ultimately, it’s too easy to fall into the failed thinking that suggests a product is the goal in and of itself. If you believe that your technology is the end and not the means to an end, you’re on dangerous ground. I’ve seen start-up after start-up that didn’t get past that initial stage. For the most part, the technology involved was interesting, even conceptually brilliant. However, the relationship of the technology to the business was lacking. It’s not surprising really. Too many companies create products for the IT Department instead of for the whole enterprise, and some don’t even do that well. If you’re in the technology world, are you minding your business?
By Tom Fedro
It’s amazing how crazy the world of startup development can sometimes get. I think about it sometimes. We live our lives trying desperately to create something so that we…well, so that we can begin living our lives. I think about it often. Are we putting the cart before the horse? Are we counting our chickens before they hatch? One of the advantages of this new economy is that we can tailor our world, in an entrepreneurial sense, to the life we want. We spend so much time working for our future that we forget we have choices in the meantime.
I’m a fan of Michael Wolfe. He describes himself as a serial entrepreneur and has had tremendous success building businesses over the past 15 years with several highly profitable exits. What I find amazing is his ability to manage living a life with building companies. He wrote an interesting blog piece about staying in shape while working long hours and has for a long time maintained that while a startup will consume a great deal of your life, it ought not consume all of your life.
It’s not really all that out of the box in terms of philosophy. In fact, the term workaholic was created as a kind of a warning in this area. However, we in the world of entrepreneurialism tend to idolize the men and women who work nineteen hour days every day and watch their relationships, their health, and their social lives disappear in the process. Add to that mix the fact than almost every startup fails. This advice comes from a man who’s successfully built five.
This Wolfe guy competes in Triathlons at world class times, Ultra-distance running, Biking etc…Okay, so are we looking at a man who’s already achieved the success that allows him to live? I don’t believe so. From the outset, Wolfe suggested the key to a startup wasn’t sacrificing your life but designing the business around the life you want to lead. His advice? “Pick where you want to live and the people you want to hang out with first. Then find a career that lets you do that.” Very good advice and his thoughts on working out in the morning to make sure you are consistent – I am now a believer!
How are you balancing your life with your dream?
By Tom Fedro
What? Can I really write this post? I’m all about business and startups and suggest that the driving force of a multitude of entrepreneurs isn’t as important as every other blog on this subject suggests? What of all the stories? What of all the movies? What about all the inspirational books and the men and women just about to give up but hanging on because they accessed deep within themselves that last vestige of hope and passion that kept them motivated against all odds.
It makes for good storytelling, but I have to tell you that I’ve been in more than one startup. I’ve advised in more than one startup, and I’ve seen countless pitches from founders. I’ve spent my career focusing on startups. I’ve yet to find a single founder of a startup who wasn’t consumed by passion. Why in the world would anyone put in the kind of effort and sacrifice necessary to start a new venture if there wasn’t passion? Everyone has it. Everyone in this arena, anyway.
The bottom line is this. According to studies (and there seem to be a million of them) the failure rate for startups is staggering. Low estimates put it at about eighty percent, some suggest the rate is ninety-two percent. That means your brilliant new business has about an eight percent chance of success, no matter how passionate you are. In fact, there’s a good chance your passion, if not reined in, will be your undoing.
The Genome Project’s study of 3200 startups concluded that the number one reason for failure is self-destruction, primarily through premature scaling. In other words, passion makes us grow too quickly and get ahead of ourselves. Things get crazy and our dreams become nightmares. Our incredible idea is so incredible that we implement it faster than it can actually succeed, and the net result is failure.
I’m not suggesting passion isn’t important. I’m just trying to tell you that everyone attempting to start a business probably already has it. Don’t work on motivating yourself in this area. Don’t focus on the passion, focus on the business. Make good, fundamental business decisions. Those are the decisions that may seem dispassionate or even appear to show a lack of confidence in the idea about which you’re so passionate. Don’t worry about that. You worry about whether or not you’ll be one the eight percent that make it.