For the Week of January 30, 2006
I learned a great and terrible lesson recently.
While it's true that anyone can launch a business, an entrepreneurial business must be a team from the start.
Sure, you need the entrepreneur, the idea person. You need someone who can find the money, who can sell the scheme, who can adjust to events, who can lead. You need someone of boundless energy, determination, ambition, and (especially) ruthlessness.
If your business is going to be on the Internet, you need a content guy. Having an Internet business without a content guy is like having a restaurant without a chef. On my latest venture, I'm the content guy (not the entrepreneur).
The content guy is committed to the editorial mission of the site (and even stores have an editorial mission). The content guy has contacts, a voice, an understanding of what's needed to attract attention and credibility. A content guy might be able to run the whole show himself, if this were a small business. But it's not, so keep the content guy in his place.
There's a third team member needed, and many businesses fail to plan for this. That's the tech person. In a restaurant this would be the maitre 'd. In an old-line manufacturing business this would be the engineer. In retailing it's a number cruncher. A geek, in other words. Gotta have a geek.
While today's Web tools are much more powerful and simple to use than ever before, they're still tools. Every step toward simplicity is matched by a step toward power. While users may use your Web site to simplify their lives, or even their own creation of content, that's not how it works inside the site business.
Think of your word processor. You, as an ordinary user, are not going to use all the functions of your word processor. You will find ways to make the program do what you want, and ignore the rest. I was amazed, years ago, when I found my 8 year old using complex key combinations on Word I'd never dreamt of using, and performing some functions I had never considered performing. Most people use just 5% of their word processor's functionality, and this is true for their other tools as well.
But if you were to build a business around that word processor, you'd need a tech guy (or gal) who knew how to use 100% of that functionality, or nearly that much. They would need to understand all your customers' use of the tool, the mistakes they would make and how to correct them. They would even have to fix problems in the program.
For an entrepreneurial start-up to work all the members of this team must be committed to the venture. They must be like the bacon on the breakfast plate. The chicken who gave the eggs is involved in the venture. The pig is committed. Give me no chickens.
It may be possible to find all these skills in one person, if that person is extremely bright and very young. But I have learned (to my horror) that the 18-hour days and 90-hour weeks of the young just can't be handled by those of us with gray in our hair. Wisdom comes at the cost of energy, and the need to pace yourself. That's the trade-off. It's the way of the world.
The course of life always leads in a direction. An entrepreneurial business will use all of that direction in its asset base. And if that life has been lived at all, you'll soon find holes in the roads not taken, no matter how much of a polymath you may be.
So build a team.
Even with a powerful team, you're going to find yourself in deep water, inside any entrepreneurial business. You're going to find yourself doing things you're not accustomed to, learning skills you don't want to learn. It's a tough slog. With luck, you're going to start hiring soon, and slough some of these duties on to others, people who will do them better. When you've hired everyone who does things better than you, then and only then are you ready for leadership.
Having studied entrepreneurs for 30 years, close-up, I can say that they are really different from most of us. They generally have enormous energy, big egos, something of a messianic complex, along with a willingness to let go, not just of parts of their jobs but of the whole business. The best entrepreneurs are in it for the chase, not the money. They care about the thrill of the building, for the buying and selling, for the hunt rather than the kill. It's a discipline much like any other, but only 1% of those who take it up, no matter how much they may learn about it at school, will be any good at it. It's like playing the guitar or writing or cooking in that way. You have a lot of journeymen, and a very few stars. The stars launch, grow, sell, and launch again. Those who stay do so by constantly expanding their visions, or by starting with such a big vision that they must grow a big company to know they've succeeded.
The credit and wealth we give entrepreneurs, and their teams, is well-earned. But the fact is there are very few true entrepreneurs out there, and very few truly entrepreneurial businesses. As a business culture, America has a lot of scrubs making star money, partly because we don't accept the rarity of true entrepreneurship, or understand that for a real entrepreneur, money is just one measuring stick.
I see a lot of small businessmen calling themselves entrepreneurs, and the differences are easy to spot. Ask someone who calls themselves an entrepreneur, "how much to walk away" and most true entrepreneurs will come up with a figure. True entrepreneurs aren't wedded to the business, but the process, the chase, the game.
Most of the people we call great entrepreneurs are, in fact, one trick ponies. Bill Gates is a one trick pony. Sam Walton was a one-trick pony. They had one idea and rode that horse to victory. But that's not entrepreneurship.
Steve Jobs is an entrepreneur. Every new product he launches is a separate entrepreneurial enterprise. It's a rare talent, something you can hear in Gershwin, or read in Rushdie. It's not something you learn in school.
I wish I were a Rushdie, or a Mozart, or even a Jobs, but I have learned that I'm a Salieri, fit to study the great but without the spark that makes for true greatness. I will commit to joining a team, I will work my butt off for the cause, but no matter how much I study entrepreneurship, I'll never gain the knack.
But it sure is fun to try.
I've got a new job. I'm now editor of Atlanta voic.us, a Web start-up aimed at building a community Web platform with a real business model. I'm also all alone in writing the Open Source Blog for ZDNet. (When this started there were three of us.)
My last non-fiction book, "The Blankenhorn Effect" won the Computer/Internet category in the 2003 Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards. Write me for a PDF copy of my latest novel, "Baptists are for Dunking."
On my Mooreslore blog I've written a new novel, "The Chinese Century." It's a story told in real-time, with real characters, but entirely fictional, dealing with the consequences of the falling dollar. I'm beginning a sequal, "American Diaspora," exploring the themes of the first book but with more fictional characters. It's a true alternate history, but set in the present day.
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Best of the Week
Some of Wingard's investors started commenting here. The number of comments grew and grew. They've turned this comment thread into their own little clubhouse, swapping takes and rumors on the company's promised sale, which in the interview Wingard said would happen some time this year.
One reason I haven't been around much lately is I have been (finally) reading Salman Rushdie's latest classic Shalimar the Clown.
Video is NOT the future of the Web.
A split seems to be developing within the conservative movement over cable policy. It may be the harbinger of a series of splits on the right over technology. Or it may be nothing.
ZDNet Open Source
Clued-in is Google , even if it loses its attempt to protect user records from the government. The attempted defense is excellent PR.
Clueless is Disney trying to dicker with Steve Jobs. Jobs ain't Ted Turner. He'll bite your arm off.
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