The 2012 Thunderbird Entrepreneurship Winterim, which I have been on for the past week, has so far been to San Diego and Los Angeles. This first series of blogs that will post will summarize, one day at a time, the highlights of the visits.
Starting on Monday, Jan 9 2012, we got a taste of the entrepreneur lifestyle via alum, and successful founder, investor, and entrepreneur, Howard Lindzon. One of the key messages of the session was that the basic ingredient substrate for a successful entrepreneur (or investor) is subject knowledge depth coupled with passion. Take StockTwits, Howard’s own company, which he started on Coronado Island in San Diego. Even though he is in a “small pond” (his words), he has proved that this model can still work because of his subject matter depth (focus), and passion for the subject matter itself. This disciplined focus was something that he did not necessarily have early on in his career, as he drifted in and out of different phases, ideas, and adventures–he reflected back on many missed opportunities, and how he could have been even more ahead of the curve in his chosen field if he had continued with it from his first moment of interest, rather than putting it down and picking it up over several years. He likened it to a game of Risk, explaining that you often need to start in a deep, recessed niche of the world to win the game. Do what you’re good at, differentiate from other players, keeping chipping away at the problem, and eventually (maybe) you’ll win. The best way to make wealth over time is to be consistent. Diversification is OK, but if you are an entrepreneur, why should you diversify? You should FOCUS 100% to rise above the noise. Focus + Passion (and probably some luck too) = Success. Right?
Wrong. While I agree with the “focus” approach for discrete intervals of time, measured, perhaps in years, taking this timeline to its natural conclusion of a lifetime becomes patently absurd, at least as long as it is applied to one, and only one idea/product/thing that sill hasn’t “taken off.” There is a point when an entrepreneur needs to give up, and find something else (or maybe work for somebody else). Hindsight in 20/20. There are always going to be missed opportunities due to ADD attention spans, shallow wallets, poor-timing, egoism, or just plain bad luck. None of us know what the future holds–so how will we be able to predict which of the 20 things we are passionate about will be the next “big bet” of the decade? Sure, we can all look back and say “Hmm, if only I…(focused on that)” but I do not believe this eureka moment will actually change our future behavior. We will either be right in our focused passion, or not. Those are the options. Simply having focused passion is not enough.
Look, we all have core beliefs of what will and won’t work, and half the time our beliefs are divorced from the reality of the market. Put simply, is it better to be tenacious about a losing product over one’s lifetime, acquiring subject matter depth and demonstrating expertise, while simultaneously contributing passion, only to have it basically flop (assuming that one can make enough money for sustenance’s sake)? Maybe this is a good strategy if one is working for a corporate, without much personally to lose. Or, is it better to put the passion and depth aside as soon as the moment of realization (of an impending failure) precipitates, and look for something else, something better suited to a changing market? Of course it is better to pick (and play) the winning hands all the time, and then ALSO have these winning bets line up with one’s passion and knowledge–but vision and drive, combined with luck, is rare indeed. The best most of us can probably ever do is look back 20 years from now and merely wish that we had invested in X company while we had the chance, given up on Y idea, or pursued Z opportunity when we had the chance. It’s easy to say after the fact, but nearly impossible to do in the moment–none of us have a crystal ball. Maybe it’s enough just to be happy in the pursuit? (I would love to hear the community’s thoughts on this.)
What I did agree with, 100%, however, was his other main advice to aspiring entrepreneurs–speed. Now we have the missing puzzle piece to frame passion and focus. Put aptly and simply, Howard explained: “Once you know what you want to do, then you have to do it. Find what you’re good at, and DO IT.” As cliche (and Nike) as it sounds, he is actually right. Fast (and effective) execution is probably 80% of the uphill battle towards entrepreneurial success. This reminded me of Mike Cassidy’s “Speed as THE primary business strategy” approach, which I mostly subscribe to for web and mobile apps, as well as, to a limited extent, consumer goods. Howard’s advice: “Get the product up. Speed is important. Keep launching stuff incrementally.” The world is moving so fast now, especially in apps and software, that if you do not immediately implement, someone else will. Implement now, refine later, and always have a constant feedback loop between the two, connected by your strategy fabric. Regardless of whether we make the right “bets” in our lifetime in terms of where we apply our passion and focus, the overall lesson that I learned today was: if you are going to fail, fail quickly. Fail with a bang. Put everything you have into that failure.
Focus, Passion, AND Speed. Now there’s the stuff an entrepreneur’s dreams are made of.