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
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
How many books have been written on this subject? I remember a decade ago there were two bestsellers out at the same time. The first suggested the key was “servant leadership” which meant the boss was there to serve his employees and to help them become all that they could. The second focused on “execution” and said the company should be run entirely as a meritocracy—get rid of the non-performers and keep firing/hiring until you had a good staff. I’ve read books that said the best bosses managed by “walking around” and others that said the only good bosses around were “hands off” bosses. One thing that seemed strange to me in this contradictory mess of advice was that every author was successful. A number of successful businessmen shared their advice on how to succeed and you couldn’t follow the advice of all of them.
Gradually, I came to the conclusion that the success of the authors (assuming they really followed their own advice) had less to do with their actions and their philosophies than it had to do with the fact that their behavior was consistent. The servant leader was a servant leader on Monday and a servant leader on Tuesday, Wednesday, and the rest of the week as well. Mr. Execution demanded the same performance on every day of the week. Employees went to work knowing exactly what to expect and they didn’t have to reinvent the wheel of behavior every single day. Perhaps, then, the single greatest attribute someone in management can have is consistency. I’m not ready to say it’s sufficient for success, but I think it’s a fair assumption to say that it’s necessary.
How does a manager (at any level) remain consistent in a world that’s changing so rapidly? I think the key is to consider the question from the perspective of consistency of aim or consistency of purpose rather than consistency of action. No, that doesn’t mean you get to be a sweetheart on Monday and an utter jerk on Wednesday. What I mean is that you can make your employees understand that your goals for the company are clear. When your actions are presented in light of your goals, they gain consistency even if the actions represent a change in direction. For example, assume your clear goal for a tech support department is a service level commitment and you’ve been harping on a policy you think will result in faster response time. Now assume the policy was a complete failure. If you change policy while explaining you were wrong about the policy’s results, and you need to try something else in order to meet the service level commitment, you’re consistent.
This isn’t the last post I’ll write about effective management, but I think it’s the most important. Employees know we’re human, and when we let them know that we’re aware of that as well, we gain rather than lose respect. Consistency is reassuring to an employee and by itself increases employee productivity by setting clear expectations that remain even when job duties are in flux.
By Tom Fedro
I’ve always loved the work of W. Edwards Deming. I recall watching a brief clip of a video once where he relates his interactions with a group of middle managers. He asks how they’ll accomplish the company goals, and Deming’s response is perhaps the best description of the problem with most management. “Immediately, a hand shot up in the back. ‘By everyone doing his best.’ Sounds great! But you know, that won’t work. Everyone is already doing his best.”
In the startup world in particular, the response to difficulty is almost always a cry to work harder, and rarely do we interpret those difficulties as an indication of flaws in our procedures or our business plans. I can understand that. Our hearts are usually wrapped up in those plans, and our first inclination is to protect our hearts, right? A problem has to lie in the effort we’re expending, right?
I don’t think so. I don’t think the difference between a successful startup and a failed startup has much at all to do with the amount of effort put in to try to make the company work. In fact, although I’m certain startups would fail without effort, I don’t know of any that didn’t make it for that reason. In general, I believe people work hard and try their best.
Deming was pointing out that the success of a company is reliant on the direction given to the company by management. He wasn’t discounting the role of a worker at all. In fact, he said the workers already do the best they can. Management is responsible for the success or failure of a venture, and that means we need to step back when things aren’t proceeding as planned and evaluate our business before we decide more long hours and whip-cracking is the solution.
I thought about this recently when I read a quote from Jeremey Liew. His insight into startups is evidence by his success at Lightspeed Venture Partners. He said, “Working harder is usually not the solution (actually working harder is usually the solution for when things are going well). Doing something differently (up to and including giving up and trying something else) is usually the right answer…” It’s not what we want to hear, but it’s good advice.
You’re already doing your best.