Tuesday, April 01, 2014



There’s a lot of conversation these days about being an entrepreneur and starting your own business and it’s very reminiscent of the early dotcom days when everyone thought they’d spend a few dollars, quickly build a website, and just wait for the bucks to start rolling in. Everyone knows how well that worked out for the lion’s share of the companies, but many young people today haven’t taken the inescapable lessons of those frothy times to heart. They think that starting a business is like learning to swim the hard way – you jump (or a helpful parent or older sibling tosses you) into the deep end of the pool - and everyone (except maybe your older brother) hopes you quickly figure things out and that you don’t drown. To put this vignette into the proper perspective, the end of this particular fantasy would be that you’d swim a couple of lengths and then emerge as a slightly better swimmer than Michael Phelps.

In addition, there’s another strain of embarrassing arrogance floating around the West Coast where the “Y” guys maintain that they can identify a good, young and talented team of guys with a mediocre idea and then, by magic and the massive application of money, their “expertise”, and their network connections, invent a new and better business for the team to build. This is, by and large, utter BS and the few pivots and successful examples that have worked out shouldn’t mislead the vast majority of us into thinking that this approach makes the slightest sense. Your idea may change over time and, in many cases, it will have to, but at least it’s your idea. If you’re plowing someone else’s field or chasing another man’s dream, at the end of the day, you’re just a hired hand. So stick with making your own best ideas real – this start-up stuff is just too hard to be doing for someone else. And I get that everyone’s dream these days is to be working for themselves building an exciting new business. That’s where we’d all like to end up, but that’s not where the journey starts.

I spoke recently to a young man who said that he had decided that he really wants to work for a technology start-up. I, myself, would like to grow at least 10 inches and play center for the Celtics. I’d say we have about the same long-term prospects because just wanting doesn't make anything so.  It’s good to have desire, but the details don’t take care of themselves. Passion needs to be melded with preparation and planning. A goal without a concrete plan to get there is just a daydream or a delusion. Your plan doesn’t have to be the world’s greatest anything. It doesn’t have to be complete; it doesn’t have to be perfect; and it’s going to change a million times along the way, but it’s a place to start. As we used to say in the movie business, “the screenplay isn’t the movie that finally gets made, but it’s what gets the movie made.”

And, as many times as I have said that an entrepreneur’s ignorance can be a competitive advantage in some respects, the truth is that you don’t get into this crazy game simply by knocking on a business’s front door and asking nicely.  If wishes were fishes, every boy would be driving a Porsche. But hope alone is not a strategy for success. 

And that’s why, when I was asked the question about whether it’s better at the outset to be a founder or to work for a start-up and learn the ropes, it wasn’t even a close question. The odds of achieving some ultimate happiness and financial success are at least 1000% better if you take the time to learn your craft and develop a valuable set of skills in some area that interests you and where you’ve got some aptitude. After that, the sky really is the only limit.

So plan to be a great employee and to grow into an important role player first and build your future path and your next plan from there instead of from nowhere.  Just one note of caution – try to work for someone who can actually teach you something of actual value – not a person who’s being doing things the same way forever or someone who’s 15 minutes older than you and learning the job as he or she goes.  Also it’s a really good idea to try to work for someone who has fewer emotional and mental problems than you have.

So that’s job number one – get started, start learning, and go from there. Then, and only then, can you start thinking about your next step. Just like Cinderella, if you want to get a great job at a great company, you’ve got to bring something to the Ball. You’ll need the skills you developed in the jobs you’ve had before (not anything you learned in school) along with a killer work ethic as well as unbelievable persistence. With that kind of package, you’re actually worth hiring. 

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