At work, I’ve encountered two very different types of people: those who look for purpose and meaning in what they do and others who have realized the effort is futile. For those of us who find ourselves squarely stuck in the first group, we’re left with the difficult task of figuring out how to achieve such an elusive thing. This discomfort especially plagues my generation and is the driver, I believe, behind the growing interest in entrepreneurship. Meaning might just be found in starting your own venture. Even so, many have had that thought, few have actually executed on it.
I recently read Tren Griffin’s book, A Dozen Lessons for Entrepreneurs, a compendium of twelve pieces of advice Griffin collected from various conversations with entrepreneurs and VCs, the likes of Marc Andreessen, Sam Altman, Vinod Khosla, and Mary Meeker. The book is one of the most interesting I’ve read in recent months. While the focus of the book is on building venture-backed companies, the applications and lessons extend beyond startups and VCs.
Columbia Business School Publishing; Fifth Letter
A Dozen Lessons For Entrepreneurs
Entrepreneurship today encompasses ventures of all kinds. Anyone paving their own path has roots in entrepreneurship. I’ll give you an example. A few months ago I started working on my first book. With very little idea of how to start, the best blueprints I found were not books on writing but books on business. Unlike most writers, I’ve approached the writing process like starting a business: I needed a strategy, I needed a business plan, and, most importantly, I needed a plan to execute. The principles highlighted by various entrepreneurs in Griffin’s book are the foundation for anyone learning to build something out of nothing.
“Entrepreneurs Don’t ‘Noodle’; They ‘Do’”
The hardest part of any venture is starting. As Griffin writes, “Lots of people talk a good game about wanting to leave a big company for a startup, but when the time comes, most don’t do it.” The trick: just start. Once you set things in motion and you’ve already committed, there’s nowhere else to go but forward. Mark Suster, an entrepreneur and investor, echoes the sentiment: “You can read lots of books or blogs about being an entrepreneur, but the truth is you’ll really only learn when you get out there and do it….Entrepreneurs don’t ‘noodle’; they ‘do.’”
Griffin adds,“Getting things done is an underrated skill.” Execution is a much harder task than most people realize. It doesn’t matter how much you mull an idea over. In practice, the execution of an idea never resembles what you imagined in your head. And you’ll never find out how it evolves until you go out and do it. As far as starts go, Griffin’s book is a good first step. But reading is no substitute; the secret is in the doing.
“Do Whatever Is Required To Get To Product-Market Fit”
Whatever you’re creating – a product, a service, a book – it is useless if it doesn’t find an audience to serve. Behind every idea is a hypothesis: a belief that an idea will be really valuable to a certain target market. But you’ll never know whether it’s true until you test your hypothesis. Bill Campbell, a well-respected business man in Silicon Valley, states: “At the core of any great business is an entrepreneur who creates a value hypothesis in the first place so that core product value (a real and significant solution to a valuable customer problem) can be tested and discovered.”
Finding this fit is so important that Marc Andreessen simplifies it even further: “The life of any startup can be divided into two parts: before product-market fit (BPMF) and after product-market fit. When you are BPMF, focus obsessively on getting to product-market fit. Do whatever is required to get to product-market fit.” Any venture will remain fruitless without good fit.
“It’s Not About How Fast You Pedal, It’s About How Clearly You Focus”
If you ask most successful founders what the key to their success was, the answer you most often hear is focus. Sam Altman states: “Stay focused….Eliminate distractions. The hard part of running a business is that there are a hundred things that you could be doing, and only five of those matter, and only one of them matters more than all of the rest of them combined. So figuring out there is a critical path thing to focus on and ignoring everything else is really important.”
Consistently identifying and focusing on the critical path is a key driver of success, or conversely if you don’t, an accelerated path to failure. Griffin adds: “The cause of a business running out of cash is often that the firm has lost focus and diverted resources to activities that are not on the critical path toward success. Cash starvation or indigestion is often a symptom of bad decisions, like premature scaling, trying to do too many things at once, or pivoting too often.”
Oftentimes, entrepreneurs conflate success with taking on a lot and moving fast. It’s easy to get sucked in when new opportunities are coming at you from all angles. Ann Winbald, a partner at Hummer Winblad Venture Partners, sums it up, “It’s not about how fast you pedal, it’s about how clearly you focus.” If you’re moving fast, but lose sight of the destination, it’s not going to get you anywhere. Blinders were invented for a reason.
“The Strategy Is The Story”
There is a common cognitive bias, illusory superiority, whereby people estimate their worth as above average, when in fact they are just average. This same principle applies to strategy. Most companies either think they have a strategy or a really strong one when they don’t even have one at all. Sam Altman states: “Have a strategy. Most people don’t.” A strategy is critical, it’s the lighthouse, it’s the thing that will act as your guide and ensure you stay focused.
Griffin defines a strategy in the following way: “A business strategy is the manner in which a company strives to be unique.” The same is true of all ventures including individual ones that aren’t necessarily startups. Strategy is your beat; it’s what you’re about, your raison d’etre. Ben Horowitz, of Andreessen Horowitz, offers the following characterization when it comes to strategy:
“When a company goes astray, you talk to employees, and they say, ‘We have no strategy. We don’t know where we’re going.’ The strategy is the story. They’re not different. The strategy is the story you tell. It’s the why. If you can’t tell that in a massively compelling way, who’s going to follow you? That’s what makes people get up in the morning and do stuff. The story must explain at a fundamental level why you exist. Why does the world need your company? Why do we need to be doing what we’re doing. And why is it important?”
“Missionaries, Not Mercenaries”
OK, you’ve started your venture. You inevitably hit a wall. You hit another wall. You hit your tenth wall. The thought creeps in: Wouldn’t it be easier to quit? If you’re a mercenary, you will choose to quit every time. The single most important trait to being a successful entrepreneur is a being a “missionary, not a mercenary.” It’s the seemingly irrational belief that will pull you over the hump. As Sam Altman puts it, “Every company has a rocky beginning. You have to have an almost crazy level of dedication to your company to succeed.”
But being a missionary isn’t only important because you will hit hard times. That’s inevitable. One of the keys is that you have to will an idea into reality. And you are usually the only one that believes in that idea in the beginning. That’s the tough part. There is an element to being a missionary that is also about being a contrarian. Herd-mentality is pervasive, which is why you have to figure out how to stand alone. The point surfaced again and again in the book:
- Kirsten Green, Forerunner Ventures: “The way I stay out of the fray is to have a point of view, and to stand for something.”
- Ben Horowitz, Andreessen Horowitz: “Think for yourself. That is the distinguishing characteristic of the great entrepreneurs.”
- Steve Blank, entrepreneur: “Founder fit the definition of a composer: They see something no one else does.”
A missionary is someone who sees something unique and pursues the vision because they believe it can be of service. It’s hard not to admire the people who go out and do that. Of course, at the start it’s not usually a path people approve of or understand. It’s a lot easier to deem a decision the right one after it’s proved successful. Before then, from the outside few understand why you’ve chosen to wade through a swamp with no visibility as to whether you’ll emerge on the other side whole and in better shape than when you first entered. The only guiding light you’ll have is your own: So how much fun are you having?
When you glance over these five principles, it’s easy to step back and think how hard it all sounds. But when you find the right path, it doesn’t feel hard, it comes naturally. When you don’t love your job, you are implicitly undervaluing your time. Time is a finite resource and one you can’t buy back. People often forget that. And very few of us use it well. (I know from experience.) The only worthwhile trade for time is spending it on pursuits you value. There is only upside when you exchange time against something you believe in. Chamath Palihapitiya, VC and former Facebook executive states: “What you value is what you achieve.” Pick what you value wisely. The rest will work itself out.