Metapreneurship | The Revolutionaries of Entrepreneurship 3.0
Welcome to the Age of Metapreneurship: Modern entrepreneurship: Entrepreneurship 3.0. They are the new leaders and visionaries of entrepreneurship 3.0. The Modern Revolutionaries. Fast paced, lean, rapid concept to mass market - but it's much more than that. Modern entrepreneurs collaborate, they share, they self-organize and work in ways that were never possible in prior generations.
Running the D.C. Marathon last March was supposed to be a glorious experience: cherry blossom week, the first day of spring, sunshine and smiles. Instead, we were greeted by ice, slush, and 12 degree wind-chill — a shocking contrast to my usual running experience in Phoenix’s 103-degree desert sun.
From the sidelines, marathoning must look pretty simple: just move your legs for a couple of hours and until you reach the finish line. But for the runners, marathoning is a multifaceted experience — exhilarating, emotional and exhausting. It’s also cerebral, strategic, and rewarding in so many ways beyond the race.
In any weather, marathoning take several hours. It is a unique form of meditation. I reflected on the decades I’ve spent as an entrepreneur, and what it’s like to build more than a half dozen high-tech ventures.
The startup experience looks much different when in the race and not on the sidelines. The entrepreneurial journey can be a grueling and intense roller coaster — just like a marathon — with many profound and insightful lessons:
1. Entrepreneurship is a Marathon not a Sprint
Yeah, it’s a tired cliche. But this phrase means more than “it will take a lot of time.” Marathoning, like entrepreneurship, is less about speed as it is about perseverance. Both require stamina, persistence, tolerance for pain and tolerance for those unexpected twists and turns.
Sprints are bursts of energy that surge you ahead of a handful of competitors. Marathons are more complex affairs, with thousands of participants but very few direct competitors. For most, marathons are about surviving the race, finishing the race, and achieving a personal-best.
Success is not about having unlimited energy, but in managing your energy. Failure comes because you ran out of steam and couldn’t continue with the race. In entrepreneurship, failure usually comes from running out of resources — usually cash. And success isn’t about having unlimited resources, but in managing your limited resources. It’s knowing when to conserve, and when to unleash your resources at the right time.
Success is more likely if you have done it before, know how to handle the landmines ahead.
2. Experience Counts
At the first moments of the race, everyone is fast and feels good — particularly younger runners. They look so energetic as they bolt out of the starting-gate. They have energy, but lack experience, and treat the marathon (and their startup) like a series of sprints.
Inexperienced entrepreneurs crank out rapid iterations of “minimum viable products“ and “move fast and break things”, without realizing that they are wasting valuable time, energy and resources.
Experience counts. Experience saves time and energy. The experienced have run this kind of race before. They have perspective on the bigger picture; they know how to pace themselves, manage their energy and preempt problems.
Another cliche is the 20-something founder: bright, energetic and fast. You might think the same thing about marathoners. But here’s some food for thought:
Half of marathon finishers fall into the 40 or older category. [1, 2]
The average age of Boston marathon runners is about 45 for men and 40 for women. 
The fastest age group that runs a marathon is 40–44 years old. 
Bet you didn’t see that coming.
It’s the same for entrepreneurs:
An MIT study found that the average age of startup founders is around 42 years old. 
The average age of entrepreneurs who founded high-growth companies is 45 years old. 
And the average age of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who have a successful exit (finishes the race) is 47 years old. 
Experience is not just about being older, it’s about having done it before — and having a strategy for doing it better.
3. Strategy is as Important as Speed
Strategy means being able to look at the bigger picture, anticipating when you need to take risks, and when you need to be careful.
Strategy means knowing the race, and knowing the difference between running a 5k, 10k, half marathon or full marathon.
Strategy knows how to manage the terrain: Even a small hill can seem insurmountable and drain your energy. The experienced runner knows how to manage the hills and the potholes; they know how anticipate thirst, fatigue and porta-potty breaks.
In entrepreneurship, strategy is the difference between coding a one-hit-wonder iPhone app, and building a sustainable company. It’s the difference between emailing a hundred customer surveys, and truly knowing the market and the industry.
Strategy is the difference between “seeking funding” and “attracting funding.” It’s the difference between success and failure.
For “the long game” strategy trumps brute-force energy and speed every time.
4. Ignore (almost) Everyone
It wouldn’t be a marathon without fans cheering from the sidelines, waving signs and rallying you forward. But just because people are cheering, doesn’t mean you’re the champion.
Adulation from the crowd can feel good, but in the end it’s irrelevant. All that matters is your pace and crossing the finish line. If other runners get cheers, it does not mean they are faster or better than you. If you get cheers, it doesn’t mean you are a better runner, and doesn’t mean you will be successful.
Too many entrepreneurs believe that cheers from the crowd — “good press”, winning contests, or lots of upvotes on Product Hunt — equals success.
Some people cheer at everyone, so it’s no measure of how well you are doing. And some runners (or entrepreneurs) are great at stoking the crowd and eliciting cheers: it doesn’t mean they are in the lead.
Many marathoners (and entrepreneurs) get distracted. They look at others in the race and think:
“Why are they ahead than me? I’m in better shape.”
“Where did those other runners come from? I never noticed them before.”
”I hate those people ahead of me — they make it look so easy and effortless!”
Obsessing about the others in the race will only slow you down. Ignore the competition: They are focused so much on their own performance that they probably don’t even know you exist.
5. Mental Conditioning is as Important as Physical Conditioning
One thing is for sure: there will be pain — whether you’re running a marathon or a startup.
If you ignore the pain, or ignore the possibility of pain, then it will affect you during the race. Instead, embrace the pain.
Embrace the pain means: expect pain; manage the pain; and know the difference between good pain, bad pain — and which pain is temporary, and which pain is a warning — where you need to stop and change tactics.
No matter how physically conditioned you are, you will experience pain and fatigue. It can exhaust you or it can embolden you. The difference is in mental conditioning. Every marathoner (and entrepreneur) goes through bouts of despair, boredom, self-doubt, and self-talk:
“I don’t know if I can finish this. “
“Why did I even start this ..?”
“How foolish I was to think I was prepared!
“What have I gotten myself into?”
“Oh God, please make it stop …”
“What, is that a hill? No one said anything about hills!”
“When is this going to end?”
“I don’t know if i have the energy to continue”
As Yogi Berra said: “Ninety percent of the game is half mental.”
Champions manage their mind above all. They resist the urge to quit — particularly when the terrain gets rocky, when the race gets tedious, or when the unexpected hill seems insurmountable.
You can’t just quit in the middle of a marathon: you still have to walk several miles to get back (and there are usually no taxis waiting on the sidelines).
Most entrepreneurs are in a position where they can’t just suddenly quit and find a job. You can’t just suddenly walk away from customers, investors, employees or partners — and usually there is no job waiting.
Like marathoners, entrepreneurs know that it’s often harder to quit than it is to finish.
The Finish Line
There it is. With one last rush of adrenaline, I cross the finish line. There’s nothing quite like being able to say “Mission accomplished.”
Sure. It was grueling, messy, and painful. But a few days later the pain is a distant memory. I thought I knew how to run a marathon before, but I learned even more this time. I know I can do better. I scroll through the schedule, and I ask “when is the next marathon?”
If you’re an entrepreneur — particularly a veteran entrepreneur — you know all about marathon entrepreneurship: You’ve got bruises, injuries and battle scars, but you survived. You’re smarter and in better shape. You’re better with experience. After some rest you’re finding yourself a little restless, and asking “when can I start my next venture?”
How Your Community Discourages Great Startups
The Lone-Wolf Startup?
Entrepreneurship evokes images of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos – but the reality is that the lone-wolf genius with the change-the-world idea is rare. Today, it’s almost impossible to build a startup alone.
It takes a community of shared knowledge and of shared resources. A community that is more than just entrepreneurs: it includes people who work inside large companies and institutions; and investors, partners and customers. It takes a community that understands and fosters entrepreneurship, so startups can thrive.
Every discussion of startup communities starts and ends with Brad Feld and with Boulder, Colorado. Brad Feld is a former entrepreneur, angel investor and venture capitalist, and cofounder of Techstars. Few have been such a driving force in startup communities than Feld. He literally wrote the book on Startup Communities.
Most of Startup Communities’ tenets are based on Feld’s experience within the Boulder entrepreneurial community. He calls it The Boulder Thesis, and it reads like a manifesto for building entrepreneurial communities. Most of the tenets are straightforward cultural traits, such as: build a strong sense of collaboration; be inclusive; experiment and fail fast; and maintain a ‘give before you get’ mindset.
Brad Feld is describing startup communities’ most successful cases like Boulder, Austin, Seattle or Los Angeles – the ones that became examples for the rest of the world. All over the world, people are trying to recreate those startup community success stories in their own regions. Alas, most get it comically wrong. And it can ruin the entrepreneurial community for decades. It’s called T-Ball Entrepreneurship.
All over the world, people are trying to recreate those startup community success stories in their own regions. Alas, most get it comically wrong.
You know T-Ball: It’s a sport for 4 to 8 year olds. It’s an attempt to give kids a baseball-like experience in a safe environment. In an attempt to make playing more fun and more inclusive, they use equipment and rules designed to make the sport artificially easy.
In T-Ball there is no pitcher. No one ever strikes out. The ball is lined up on a tee, and you can take as many swings as you’d like. Everyone is guaranteed to hit the ball, and everyone gets on base. Everyone gets a trophy and everyone is a star player.
T-Ball Entrepreneurship happens when a startup community just tries too hard. They begin with the best of intentions. Participants and leaders want an encouraging, nurturing environment where everyone is included, and where everyone can be an entrepreneur. But these good intentions transform the startup community into a T-Ball game where everyone is a star, no one fails, and everyone feels good. Everyone gets a trophy but no one is ever ready for the major leagues.
Here are the four pillars of the T-Ball Entrepreneurship community:
The Cult of Cheerleaders
The Cult of Contests
The Cult of Coaches
The Burning of the Heretics
See if any of these describe a startup community you know:
The Cult of Cheerleaders
Are there lots of cheerleaders in the community? Are the loudest cheerleaders the leaders of the startup community?
T-Ball cheerleaders make every product seem great, treat every company like it’s the next Google, and treat every founder like a rock star. First time entrepreneurs become the subject of glowing articles, give keynote speeches and are featured on expert panels based on no other accomplishment other than they started a new company. New products are showcased always as breakthrough, regardless of any market validation or other evidence.
T-Ball cheerleaders make every product seem great, treat every company like it’s the next Google, and treat every founder like a rock star.
It’s impossible criticize these cheerleading efforts without sounding like a curmudgeon, a naysayer, or just plain negative. Cheerleaders are so positive, encouraging and nurturing, who could possibly see this as a problem? But T-Ball cheerleaders try too hard to make everyone feel good. And if everyone is a “star” we cannot tell who has talent and who does not. We cannot tell real achievement from kindness.
Cheerleaders not only try to encourage startup community members, but they try to showcase “wins” for the entire community. The underlying premise is that demonstrating a series of successes will elevate the region’s stature compared to other regions – and thus will attract investors, customers, partners and encourage more entrepreneurs.
In T-Ball Entrepreneurship, accumulating wins means ‘talking up’ the community’s entrepreneurs and their activities – reframing average results as major accomplishments.
Cheerleaders love talking about wins so much, they create games just to produce wins: contests and competitions.
The Cult of Contests
Profits, revenues, customers, market share – startup ventures usually don’t have any of the traditional metrics yet, so they rely on a variety of other indicators: interim milestones or surrogate metrics that point to the likelihood of greater success – a product launch, attracting venture capital, a patent, a partnership, or a large customer sale. These are the “wins” that telegraph the venture’s progress on the road to success.
But if a startup community is not amassing any wins, inevitably the cheerleaders spawn a plethora of local startup contests and competitions because competitions create winners. Contests and competitions can indeed be great methods to excite and fuel the entrepreneurial community (and the general public), but more often they serve to sustain the T-Ball Entrepreneurship mentality.
At best, contests and competitions showcase the promising companies in the region – but only relative to the other companies in the same region. A contest win for a Orlando-based software company might raise their prestige in the Orlando region, but won’t do much to telegraph their prospects to the software industry, to customers, or to venture capitalists. It’s a local win.
Contests and competitions cost local startups valuable time (in preparing). At their worst, competitions can validate the wrong startups. How so? Well, startup competitions are not like sports, where teams compete directly against each other. Instead, winners are chosen by panels of judges. And this is where so many regional communities veer off the tracks.
The Cult of Coaches
How do you judge whether one entrepreneur is more promising than another? How do you judge whether one early stage venture is more promising than the other? Career venture capitalists can’t even do this with better than a 20% success rate.
If an entrepreneurial community doesn’t have a concentration of seasoned professionals with intimate startup experience, then the pool of qualified contest judges is slim. Making matters worse, the sponsoring organization – usually a government agency, university or a large company – chooses the judges. Few inside these organizations have enough experience with entrepreneurship to judge a competition much less know how to identify a qualified judge.
Instead, these judges are usually chosen from a mix of former executives, managers, lawyers, consultants, and other service providers with little hands-on entrepreneurship experience. The judging pool is very flawed. The competition will have winners, but they won’t necessarily produce winning ventures for the startup community.
Brad Feld warned about feeders attempting to taking over the community. But far more harmful (and more subtle) are the feeders that masquerade as leaders.
In a T-Ball Entrepreneurship community, these dangerous feeders are mentors and advisors who never started a successful venture nor have been directly involved with one. And they masquerade as the experts, and the coaches. These are usually people from other professions: services, large companies, institutions or those who have run a successful consulting or small business. They may have recently taken a Lean Startup class or a few workshops.
Even more common are the T-Ball cheerleaders who end up running regional entrepreneurship organizations. They are T-Ball coaches posing as major league coaches. And T-Ball communities fall for it big time.
…they are T-Ball coaches posing as major-league coaches. And T-Ball communities fall for it big time.
A telltale sign of a T-Ball Entrepreneurship community is when a local university or economic development agency has a database of thousands of available mentors from the business community truly an great example of ‘quantity over quality.’ This practice dilutes the value of mentors and advisors who have legitimate entrepreneurship experience. It progressively and successively lowers the bar for mentors and thus for the entrepreneurship community.
The Burning of the Heretics
But what if you already have the talent to be a successful entrepreneur? What if you’ve already been a successful entrepreneur? What’s it like to be a “pro” and walk into T-Ball game? Would you immediately be a star and a role model to everyone else? Probably not.
If a pro-baseball player joined a T-Ball game, he’d probably be kicked off the field after hitting the ball over the fence every time. His presence would be highly disruptive to the other players. His knowledge and talent would be a threat the T-Ball coaches. His advice would be ignored, since everyone is playing a much simpler game with different objectives. Eventually the pro-baseball player would be relegated to the bleachers.
This is what it’s like for experienced, accomplished entrepreneurs in a T-ball Entrepreneurship community. They are alienated because they are playing a different level of game, they are drowned out and silenced by the cheerleaders: Ostracized.
This is what it’s like for experienced, accomplished entrepreneurs in a T-ball Entrepreneurship community. They are alienated because they are playing a different level of game
T-Ball cheerleading can be irresistible and infectious. Who wants to be the voice that says ‘the emperor has no clothes’? When the cheerleaders rally adoration for products, companies, or entrepreneurs that aren’t ‘major league’, almost everyone cheers: Almost.
Seasoned entrepreneurs sometimes feel compelled to point out when products or entrepreneurs are not ‘major league’ – i.e. not on par with the major startup communities. When the experienced entrepreneurs point out that the local accolades are unwarranted, they are often ignored or made to be pariahs. Honest feedback is subtly discouraged, particularly if it is unflattering.
Experienced entrepreneurs risk being disregarded as being too negative and end up branded as heretics to the community: Heretics for speaking the truth among the noise of the T-Ball cheerleaders and coaches. And like heretics throughout history, we try to burn them at the stake: marginalizing them, banishing them, and excommunicating them.
Without the heretics, the T-Ball community becomes an echo chamber for the cheerleaders and coaches. It is dangerous to ostracize the heretics, since it diminishes the entire startup community. And it ensures that the T-Ball Entrepreneurship community supports only T-Ball level players.
Without the heretics, the T-Ball community becomes an echo chamber for the cheerleaders and coaches.
Is it any wonder why so many talented entrepreneurs flee their T-Ball communities and flock to Silicon Valley?
Entrepreneurial startup communities are vital for modern entrepreneurs. Done right, they are truly useful ecosystems, support systems and environments for fostering successful entrepreneurs. But it’s easy to get it wrong and become T-Ball Entrepreneurship communities. If you’re immersed in one, it can be hard to resist.
T-Ball Entrepreneurship communities: everyone gets a trophy – but no one is ever ready for the major leagues.
The Management Team. It’s the most important slide in the investor pitch deck. This is what all new entrepreneurs learn from the get-go. And it’s this slide that speaks volumes about the perception of “experience” in this modern era of entrepreneurship.
As investors and advisors to a statewide economic development program, each month we’d listen to pitches by dozens of promising startup ventures seeking funding. All across the country other investors and experts were having the identical experience. The startup ventures came in three groups: Mobile app or web companies started by enthusiastic 20-something year-olds; university research spin-offs headed by experienced professors; and deep industry solutions led by former executives.
Around slide 12, the 20-something founders will display a diverse team of classmates each with 3-4 years experience, followed by a handful of advisors who agreed to have their name associated with the company.
Even more predictable, were the ventures led by seasoned, former executives. They always started their pitches the management section. Before we even knew the name of the company, we were subjected to several bulleted slides detailing the CEO’s extensive credentials. This authoritative monologue often lasted 5 out of the allotted 15 minutes; only then would they reveal the product, market and customers.
If you were looking around the room, you might be surprised by the investors’ body language, but it turns out that our reactions to “the management slide” were pretty common.
At first we nodded in approval, then got bored and impatient. With each passing bullet point, and with each passing qualification, the credibility of the founder decreased. What were they overcompensating for? What were they hiding? Why were they delaying the rest of the presentation? Did they think that, by overwhelming us with their credentials, it will somehow guarantee that the product and market were viable? Gradually, their experience became a liability.
The Paradox of Experience
In times of rapid change, experience could be your worst enemy. – Jean Paul Getty
Once upon a time, your resume was a record of your achievements and credentials: showing how you have progressively accomplished more, and advanced upwards through some hierarchy. There’s a hard-to-escape logic that experience – especially when documented in the form of job titles and brand-name companies – is an asset.
Today, the culture is markedly different, particularly in entrepreneurial ecosystems: Showcasing your experience is akin to prominently displaying your high school trophies – worse if you have to explain their meaning. The further you are away from these achievements, the less they are a predictor of your future accomplishments.
Without noticing, we find ourselves operating in a new era . A modern age of hyperconnected, fast-paced, networked entrepreneurship: The Age of Metapreneurship. It is filled with unexpected chaos, and unexpected new rules, and paradoxes. And the experience-advantage gap might be the biggest paradox.
In the Age of Metapreneurship, experience and credentials have a very short half-life.
A New Logic
It’s a bitter pill to swallow. Experience can be a liability. The concept prompts prolonged bouts of cognitive dissonance and confusion in the smartest people. It’s like proclaiming: in the 100 yard dash, speed can slow you down.
It happens to all of us. Have you ever applied for a job, or been through interviews where you were the most experienced and qualified candidate? Yet, when you did not get a job offer, invariably a level of disappointment, bewilderment and depression begins that rivals the “5 stages of grief.”
It’s a modern bias that defies logic. Today, the common “wisdom” is:
Past performance has no bearing on whether or not you will succeed in the future.
Recent performance counts more than the number of years of experience.
Job titles are valuable if they explain your skills, but a detriment if all they do is indicate your hierarchy within an organization.
And most important: in an entrepreneurial ecosystem, being on top of the hierarchy means you have separated from the crowd – and thus are disconnected from the community.
Think about it. Why aren’t the programmers with the most years of experience the highest paid, and the most-in demand? Why aren’t companies – particularly high tech companies – scrambling after older workers?
How often in business do we see experienced executives or veteran entrepreneurs struggle, flounder or fail when trying to launch their second act. By all logic they should be the gurus of our age.
The Guru Paradox
Guru. It used to mean: “influential or popular expert or teacher, or a master.”
Today, Guru is code for: “An older expert who would be very expensive to hire, but if we keep treating him nicely, we can get a lot of free knowledge from him.”
Being called a guru is often a modern scarlet letter, branding the expert as untouchable, while outwardly giving them respect and accolades. It’s a paradox. It’s a mirror image to “The Peter Principle”.
The Guru Paradox applies to someone who has risen high in the hierarchy, and whose achievements and credentials are so formidable that they would never fit into the network, the crowd, or the culture. The perception is that this person – who resides at the top of the hierarchy – could never thrive, instead, as part of a community or network.
Here’s the interesting dilemma: the more capable you seem, the less the crowd wants to help. The experienced have fewer peers. The more experienced you seem, the fewer people on the network are willing to help, and the less the crowd wants to engage. Why? Because the “experienced” don’t seem to need any help.
In this way, experience can be an albatross. And those who have earned power are becoming powerless.
The Guru Paradox happens with the hyper-accomplished: from executives and creatives, all the way to Oscar winning actors and actresses. The Guru Paradox transforms the maverick into a misfit.
Subtly, the guru is rendered ineffective and unemployable.
The New Power Equation
In the Age of Metapreneurship, your most valuable skillset is your ability to work within an network ecosystem, and contribute to the network – not the hierarchy.
In his book “The End of Power …” author Moises Naim describes – not an end of power – but a change in what defines power. He concludes:
Power no longer resides at the top of hierarchies, but at the center of networks.
So, how does the modern guru become central to the network? By continually providing value to the network. By becoming indispensable to the network.
This equation is an old one: provide value to get value. And it’s here that the experienced can thrive, because they do indeed have something to give to the network – their wisdom and knowledge they’ve acquired over the years.
It makes sense. People gravitate and flock towards those who they think will provide them with knowledge, connections and value. And in the Age of Metapreneurship, it’s the most important skillset – the ability be valuable at the center of a network, ecosystem or community. Not at the top of the hierarchy – but in the center.
Browse Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or any entrepreneurship blog, and within minutes you’ll find at least 20 gems of entrepreneurial wisdom quoted from the mega-successful moguls. This wisdom is guaranteed to jumpstart your venture, and inspire you to entrepreneurial greatness.
These “secrets” or “rules” for success sound so powerful that they’re immortalized in motivational posters and animated gifs. They get repeated by mentors, investors and other gurus as unquestioned, timeless wisdom.
Usually this entrepreneurial wisdom is about starting a company, or about the key qualities it takes to be a great entrepreneur: Timeless gems of wisdom, uttered by bona fide successes.
It’s all great advice, with one exception: If you’re a struggling entrepreneur working in the trenches, this wisdom doesn’t apply to you. It’s bad advice.
It’s like listening to one of those AM radio hosts, talking about managing your money: diversifying your portfolio; paying off your credit cards and loans; buying gold, bonds and mutual funds. All good advice. Sound, wise, and completely irrelevant if you’re just graduating college, and looking for a job just to pay the rent.
Not only is the advice irrelevant, it can be downright destructive. It’s as predictable, as it is wrong – for you.
So let’s take a look at 7 of the common nuggets of wisdom and see how they apply to the average startup entrepreneur:
1. Only Take Smart Money
This is a phrase that seems to have originated with investors who compete with each other for the best deals (“Facebook please let us invest – our money is so much smarter than the other guys!”).
But for the typical struggling entrepreneur, saying “only take smart money” is like telling the guy dying of thirst in the desert to “only drink filtered water.” No. Drink any water you can get your hands on.
Sure – if you have choices, then choose smart money. And if you have lots of choices for funding, then you might as well choose money that is smart, beautiful, witty and charming. The thing is, most entrepreneurs struggle just to get a meeting with a serious investor, let alone a get single term sheet.
So unless it’s money from a Mexican drug cartel, take it, and let the other guy hold out for smart money.
2. Hire only “A Players”
Sure. Sure. It makes so much sense to say “we only hire the best.” Yes, hire as many of the top “A Players” in your industry and build a world class team. It’s a slogan that is both self serving and delusional for many reasons:
Past performance is actually a very unreliable indicator of future success. People who were “A Players” in their last company, might not be such a star in your startup. Just ask the companies that hired Marissa Mayer or John Sculley.
“A Players” are expensive. But if money is no object, then go right ahead and hire them. Wait. Is money no object?
“A Players” are often unavailable – because they are likely starting their own companies.
Not everyone looks like an “A Player” until they are given the right opportunity.
There are countless cases where entrepreneurs reach out and hired “A Players” from large companies or elsewhere – only to have it backfire. “A Players” can turn out to be “D Players”, if put in the wrong situation, or with the wrong timing.
Players (employees) with almost NO experience may thrive in a situation and become “A players.” Facebook’s original startup team was certainly not made of “A Players,” by any definition, and neither was Microsoft’s first team. But in each case they all ended up being industry stars.
The real wisdom is: Most of the time we don’t know who the “A Players” are. Credentials, titles, and even track records have little bearing on future success – particularly when applied to a startup. Employees thrive and become stars when put in the right situation at the right time.
Great leadership isn’t about buying expensive diamonds from Tiffany’s. Great leadership is about finding diamonds-in-the-rough, and helping them shine.
3. Titles Don’t Matter
The hell they don’t. This piece of advice is usually uttered by someone who already has a title: a CEO, Chairman or VP. This advice is just as relevant as Bill Gates or Mark Cuban saying “don’t worry about money”
For most startups, and particularly for their first employees, titles are of huge importance. Symbolically they are motivating, and provide an incentive in lieu of tangible compensation. Titles give people a professional identity, and in many cases indicate their role within the company.
But startup titles are also important to the outside world too. Titles help people at established companies understand what the startup employee does, and what they’re responsible for (unless it’s a startup that insists on having quirky job titles). Titles signal how much authority a person has to get something done, or their proximity to a decision maker.
Next time someone you know says “titles don’t matter” – ask them to give up their title or trade it with yours.
4. Learn to Say No
At first this sounds empowering; a way of taking control; and a way of showing people that your time is valuable. But really, Saying “no” is the top skillset of the average government clerk or bureaucrat, and not that of an entrepreneur. Saying “no” cuts off all action, and all possibilities.
What if everyone took that advice? Entrepreneurs go through most of their startup years looking for that one person to say “yes.” When seen through this lens, it’s the people who say “yes” that really make things happen.
Saying “no” is not power. Being able to say “yes” is power – it shows you have the ability to greenlight something – and to devote time and resources to it. Saying “yes” sets things in motion. Saying “no” stops everything in its path.
People who get good at saying “no” eventually turn off the spigot of opportunities coming their way. They become the dead-end street that no one wants to turn to. Eventually opportunities will just drive on past their street.
So, say “yes” more often. Just don’t say “yes” to every single thing coming your way. Learn to prioritize.
Also, say Yes to things that are outside your top priorities. It may sound unfocused and distracting, but saying “yes” expands your network, and helps others in your network. Otherwise, you end up being that selfish jerk who is only out for their own interests.
5. Stop caring about what other people think
How cool is that?! To go around not giving a damn what other people think. Whew.
Unfortunately, for most of us, what “other people” think is indeed important, because it can affect your success.
“Other People” often have the power to open doors for you, connect you to critical knowledge, resources and people. “Other People” might invest in your company; they have the ability to otherwise help you fulfill your goals. You should care what they think.
Of course – the key is to recognize whose opinion really matters, and not to obsess over opinions you can’t change.
6. Follow your Passion
Now, who can you argue with this wisdom? But really it’s too general – like “be happy” or “work hard.”
Passion is a quirky emotion when you think about it. We’re passionate about a lot of things in life, at different times in life. We get passionate about brand-new things. We get passionate about challenges. But passion can be fleeting.
How many of us were head-over-heals passionate for a romantic partner when you were younger? But now that you are older, perhaps having found your spouse, you’re so grateful that you didn’t pursue that earlier passion.
Passion often blinds us and convinces us to do the wrong thing – impulsively. And passion can turn into unhealthy obsession.
Yes, this “Follow your passion/pursue your dreams” advice does indeed come from those who followed their own passions, successfully. But we never seem to hear from the gazillions of failures who also followed their passion, only to discover it was a dead end, or who discovered that they missed out on their real passion.
Often entrepreneurship reveals a passion you didn’t know you had.
Yes, it’s hard to tell because it looks like “work”. Entrepreneurship is about rolling up your sleeves and doing the work. Often the entrepreneurial passion comes from accomplishment, from taking a successful risk, or by proving that you were smarter, faster or better.
And that leads us to the most common piece of entrepreneurial wisdom occupying the most real estate on those motivational posters:
7. Never Give Up!
Who could disagree with this final piece of inspiring, motivating nugget of wisdom.
Never Give Up! Does this mean “die trying?”
Never Give Up – seems to preclude the possibility that you might be wrong. Entrepreneurs should give up: IF they learn new information, corrected information, or if they discover they’re on the wrong track. Give Up – doesn’t necessarily mean “abandon your efforts,” and it doesn’t necessarily mean defeat or failure.
For instance, if you’ve been a pioneer working on a superior, breakthrough product, destined to be the industry standard – but you’re Beta-max and the world eventually decides to adopt VHS. How long do you stay on your current path before you give up?
Giving up means intelligently avoiding a truly losing battle, where the options and likelihood of success have really dwindled. The hard part is knowing the difference between a bad idea that’s just not working and a good idea that just hasn’t gone all the way yet.
Sometimes you don’t know if you are giving up on the wrong idea to make room for the right idea – the one that you really don’t want to give-up on.
A successful entrepreneur is indeed persistent – but a successful entrepreneur knows the difference between persistence and futility.
Timeless wisdom is slightly different once you are at the top of the food chain, than when you are starting out or struggling.
It’s still sage advice – but often it’s impractical and even damaging for the working entrepreneur: Just like the driving advice from the Indy-500 champion that has to be filtered for the teenager driving for the first time.
But in the long run, it is good advice. So for entrepreneurial success, remember that the smart money’s on hiring good people, saying “yes,” being passionate, and never giving up.
Money and Power without Transparency and Accountability: A Toxic Mixture
I should have known better. But sometimes it’s “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
When all these revelations about sexual misconduct and harassment recently became public, people were shocked, outraged, and angry. I wanted to weigh-in with an emotional response of my own. Yet my overarching emotion was better described as the absence of one particular emotion: Surprise.
For those who can’t tell by reading my name, I am male. I was co-founder of 6 funded high-tech startups, and then spent a short stint in the venture capital industry – all in Silicon Valley. Later I escaped to become an entrepreneurship educator, advisor, investor and author. This rampant “bad behavior” is one of the reasons why I left Silicon Valley.
So, I wasn’t surprised. I was, however, surprised to see how many people who were surprised. I tweeted as much, sarcastically, about one of the offenders. Alas, 140 characters is a risky place for sarcasm, and for some, the sarcasm didn’t seep through.
A touch of the outrage ricocheted to me – a few people implied that I “didn’t get it” – mistaking my bemused lack of surprise as somehow condoning the boorish behavior. Nope. It’s about time these guys got called out, and I am in awe of the women who had the guts to do it.
Silicon Valley culture is really a euphemism for the fast paced, high growth ecosystem of entrepreneurs, startup companies and the investors that fuel them – no matter where they are located. And most who are not immersed in this culture find it amusing that we need so many articles explaining why this behavior is inappropriate, wrong, abusive, and criminal. But Silicon Valley wasn’t always so clueless.
Some might remember during the dot-com boom, there were 2 incidents within a week of each other: A prominent Silicon Valley CEO arranged a meeting with an underage female he met online. She was 14 years old when he met her in a hotel room and had sex. The other executive only got as far as the first meeting. Once they were discovered, they were each promptly fired and jailed. End of story. No one needed countless articles explaining how this was “bad behavior.” Every adult knew it; and those who didn’t know it, probably ended up being perpetrators and convicts themselves.
Fast forward to 2017. Almost daily, we’re hearing accounts of high-profile Silicon Valley venture capitalists and executives preying on, discriminating against, or harassing women. But attributing this problem to misogyny isn’t the whole story. Certainly women get the worst of this behavior – but these offenders’ victims aren’t limited to women. And the warning signs were everywhere.
It’s an Old Tale About Men, Money and Power
Put yourself into this timeless, modern tale:
You get a coveted job as an associate or partner at a venture capital firm. Chances are, you have an Ivy League degree. For as long as you’ve been alive, people have been treating you like you’re destined for great things -even entitled to them. And now you’re in the elite VC club.
This new job puts you close to millions – maybe billions – of dollars; funding that entrepreneurs are desperately struggling to get. You may not be the gatekeeper or the decision maker, and you’re certainly not the one who will roll up your sleeves and work 22 hours a day to build the next Amazon, Google or Facebook. But none of this matters. Everyone thinks you hold the keys to the money-vault. So they line up.
Journalists and entrepreneurs treat you as if you’re an expert or a thought leader. You get invited to speak at panels, write articles on how to build a company, and on the state of the industry. People hang on your every word merely because they think you can invest in their company.
So it’s hard not to get a little arrogant. People stand in line to get your business card. Entrepreneurs actually have to read books and take classes just to learn how to talk to you. You tell entrepreneurs (your customers, by the way) that you won’t even read their emails unless they already know someone else in your elite circle.
The results of your work or behavior really won’t be measured for at least 7 years (the typical lifespan of a venture fund). Meanwhile, you still get paid handsomely regardless of your track record. You can go on working for many years without ever being held accountable. Even if you aren’t successful, the industry keeps a very tight lid on such information.
Money and power, minus transparency and accountability: It can transform arrogance into hubris. And then you start crossing the line of acceptable behavior and decency. Maybe you use profanity all the time, thinking that it makes you sound blunt and honest – pushing limits and boundaries. But really it just makes you foul mouthed and immature. Regardless, people think you’re close to that pile of money, so they tolerate it. That song might as well say “when they think you’re rich, they’ll tolerate anything.”
You continue to cross the line, because you’re elite and special. No one says anything. But it’s not all your fault; you’ve have a lot of enablers.
Culture of Enablers
Silicon Valley seems universally outraged at the recent tranche of revelations. But this egregious behavior didn’t go from zero-to-one overnight. It happened in small steps. And every step of the way, people tolerated, enabled, and even encouraged this behavior.
I’m constantly taken aback as to how many people publicly tolerate – even celebrate – boorish, arrogant behavior from high profile people – and somehow think that this is merely “pushing the limits and breaking boundaries.” Far too many think that this behavior is the prerequisite for success, based on a small list of accomplished celebrities, who attained their success despite this bad behavior – not because of it.
In Silicon Valley, the gateway behavior is often brushed off as a form of “bro culture” or simply as part of our lively, intense startup culture. It starts simple, maybe a beer-bash at work, with employees getting drunk – hooting, wrestling – or maybe even more subtle than that: like having a text conversation with someone, while in the middle of a face-to-face business meeting. It’s the little things that say “I don’t care what anyone else thinks – what I want to do is more important.”
CEOs and even HR directors seem to condone – and even encourage – the behavior: As if they are drawing on the logic of “we want to be a unicorn company – so we have to move fast and break things – and act unconventional and irreverent.” In other words: bad behavior is good. People tolerate it because maybe there’s something exciting about ignoring boundaries, and getting close to crossing that line.
When someone straddles that “line” long enough, it’s only a matter of time until they start feeling comfortable crossing it. How long traveling on that line before the signposts say “Misogyny, Harassment & Assault – Next Exit” ?
But surely not everyone tolerates it. Not everyone is an enabler. What happens if you try to discourage the behavior, or stop it early?
Certainly there are people in Silicon Valley who recognize the behavior in its embryonic stages. They understand that, if it’s allowed to grow, it can indeed flourish into the headlines we see today. But instead of speaking up, discouraging it, or stopping it – they do nothing.
Of course we all know why. Silicon Valley is an integrated ecosystem; a community. If you want to be an entrepreneur, a developer, an investor, or even an employee – you need to be a part of the culture. If you speak out about these small behaviors, you’ll seem prudish, petty and naive. No one wants to be that person. Few will see you as brave: you’re not a team player; you’re just a complainer, or “not a cultural fit.” And you’ll end up being marginalized or even ostracized.
It’s like working in a Hollywood cliche. If you don’t tolerate the boorish behavior by the director or producer: “You’ll never work in this town again.” In Silicon Valley’s case: “You’ll never get your company funded. Ever.”
So the voices of those who see the warning signs are filtered-out and muted. Collateral damage. At worst, they are the outcasts – not the bad-actors themselves – leaving only the enablers.
Little by little, like the proverbial frog in the pot, the arrogance, hubris, and boorish behavior increases. Inappropriate behavior, at first ignored and tolerated, becomes common and almost expected. No one seems to notice how often they come to crossing a line – a line no one should even be near.
Miles Away from the Line
Here we are today. Revelation after revelation; confessions and apologies. Even the apologies reveal how these guys really didn’t think they were doing anything wrong. Few ever challenged them when the behavior was merely in the ‘arrogant stage.’
Some of these guys claim they are going into counseling, or taking seminars and training in sexual harassment. This is as amusing as it is serious. All around the country, many well-adjusted men read these accounts and have cartoon thought-bubbles over their heads:
Really? You’re 50 years old, and you need someone to teach you that it’s wrong to bring an inebriated 22 year old woman back to your hotel room to try to sleep with her?
You’re married, have 3 kids, and they’re out of town. Do you really need someone to tell you that inviting a younger woman (or any woman!) to your house is inappropriate? Have you lost so much touch with reality that you think this is OK?
The maneuvering, deception, and lying that you do while trying to sleep with a 20-something entrepreneur: are we to think this is the ONLY time you deceive, lie and manipulate to get what you want?
Silicon Valley, you’ve seen the warning signs. and yet in so many subtle ways, you’ve enabled these guys. Reading all the responses to the recent articles reminds me of Captain Renault’s disingenuous proclamation in Casablanca: “I am shocked—shocked—to find that gambling is going on in here! ”
If you work in Silicon Valley, you see the seeds of the problem every day. Watching this behavior, the warning signs, is like watching a ticking time bomb: When the bomb finally blows up and destroys everyone nearby, sure, everyone is shocked – but how can you be surprised?
# # #
CJ Cornell is a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor, now an educator, advisor and author based in Phoenix.
With 100,000 how-to books, dozens of entrepreneurship programs in every city and an expert on every website – it should be pretty easy to become a successful entrepreneur. But something’s wrong.
Techniques and advice that were effective 5 or 10 years ago, will make you an amateur, today. The world changed. Technology and people changed. Yet the field of entrepreneurship hasn’t changed all that much. The old rules and the old mindsets are holding you back. In fact, the more experienced you are, the worse it can get.
The Age of Metapreneurship – is about the future of
entrepreneurship – a future that is just emerging now.
It’s about a new kind of entrepreneurship, and a new kind of entrepreneur …
A special thanks to those friends and colleagues who read advanced copies, and were kind enough to leave some great reviews on Amazon.com:
… a funny, lively, informative book that examines entrepreneurship in a variety of novel and useful ways. A must-read, whether you’re just starting out in the entrepreneurial world, or been at it for a while.
This is a must-read for founders, business buffs and anyone interested in startup culture.
Yet another “Lessons Learned” post from a first-time entrepreneur. Except this one is incredibly wise beyond his years. The insights are so in depth and valuable that even the most seasoned serial entrepreneur would be envious. The sad part is, since the article is not one of those pithy “10 secrets to building a successful venture” posts, it will be lost on the typical reader seeking quick-fix advice.
I have a deep cynicism when reading first-time entrepreneurs pontificating advice based on what they learned.
Most of their insights are based on what surprised them, because they were so inexperienced to begin with. While “make sure you don’t run out of cash” may have been a painful epiphany for them – the advice is hardly worth publishing for the millionth time. Just imagine a first-time coder pontificating as an expert his “lessons learned” – citing that you should always check for missing semi-colons and mismatched brackets. To be fair, beginners would indeed find this advice useful – but does someone need to write about it again? One would think there are enough posts out there to max out a google search on the topic.
TLDR; – At Your Own Risk!
Alex Schiff, the young co-founder of Fetchnotes (which may or may not still be in business) – has penned an epic post on everything he has learned in starting, building and eventually exiting his startup company. Don’t like his frat-boy image fool you (actually I think he actually IS still a frat-boy, or college student!). The post, Lessons from the front lines: building Fetchnotes is jammed back with incredible insights that will benefit beginner and veteran alike.
I could not even begin to do justice by posting excerpts, but here are just a few …
You can find product-market-fit with the wrong group of customers. (incredibly insightful) …
Product-market-fit moves. (ie – your market is a moving target …)
Know where your product begins and ends.
re: competition, you’re probably way too worried about it. Chances are, they have no idea who you are, and even if they did know who you are, your existence wouldn’t change their business strategy very much.
this is an insight usually reserved for veterans of 3-4 startups.
The only thing more powerful than the laziness of the average consumer is their unwillingness to spend money. People will go through mind-blowing lengths to avoid paying just one dollar.
another insightful gem!
Despite the length of the article, he really identifies and clarifies some of the most critical issues in starting a successful venture. And despite his age and experience – this advice is not for newbies! Most of this advice will be lost on brand-new entrepreneurs – but the veterans will appreciate the clarity. And experienced advisors and mentors will be able to use this article as a way to impart some advanced topics in starting a new venture, to new entrepreneurs.