Entrepreneurial Loneliness – Learning to Share

“It’s lonely at the top of Olympus” – quote from Emperor Nero (Dom DeLuise) – “History of the World” – by Mel Brooks

Some would say that today, we live in the age of the entrepreneur. As someone who has been in this space for over 40 years, I must say I tend to agree. When we first formed entrepreneurial services at EY, it was considered by most to be just small business. There was no Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs back then. Each entrepreneur we met seemed to be possessed by this passion to set out to create something that big business wouldn’t (or couldn’t) do. They were the outliers; jousting at windmills and looking to accomplish the impossible. Looking back on all the innovation, financial success (can you say unicorn?) and social good, one can only say thank goodness for those early pioneers. It has been quite a ride and the juggernaut continues.

However, I see something a bit different in many of the entrepreneurs of today. While I still believe that deep down inside they want to change the world, they start out motivated by something a bit different; the ultimate vision of being their own boss. They raise questions like, “Why be creative for others?” and, “Why put up with all the office politics, infrastructure and chains which will keep me back?” Perhaps they just can’t find a job. But they love the image of that ultimate dream – – waking up in the morning and looking in the mirror and realizing you have nobody to answer to but yourself. Ah, nirvana.

So why the concern? To me there is an important part of the message of success that does not get delivered as forcefully as the image of the entrepreneur on a stage by himself or herself explaining their success to the world. Lost is the importance of the support cast. Where would Steve Jobs had been if Steve Wozniak had not been there? While every entrepreneur loves the fact that they answer to themselves, that same scenario conjures up visions of fear and uncertainty – – most feel personally responsible for the success or failure of their company. The immediate reaction is usually to do “whatever it takes” to make sure the business is successful. Learning to build a team and share some of that responsibility and “pain” with others does not come easy.

I am surprised that with all the business coaches and organizations that offer advice and the plethora (thank you “Three Amigos”) of guidance on team building that is prevalent in business media, I still get introduced (on more occasions than I care to admit) to successful business owners who believe they are on their own and who are feeling the strains of “being alone on Olympus.” My role with them sometimes morphs into a form of pseudo psychological therapy, but mainly it is just that of an objective observer offering advice that often reinforces what the entrepreneur believes but feels they cannot share with those close to them.

So please, as you build your business, find people to share your successes and your challenges – – key employees, advisory board members, advisors or peers. Many of those in your personal network are more than willing to help and support you on your journey. As the famous saying goes, “No man (woman) is an island,” and for an entrepreneur, no truer words were ever spoken.

Teamwork – No Successful Entrepreneur Should Leave Home Without It

“We got the tools; we got the talent.” – Winston Zeddemore from Ghostbusters

I am often asked what makes one company more successful than another.  Many think it is the uniqueness of the product or the ability to obtain financing that results in success.  I am going to draw upon three decades of comments and discussions with Venture Capitalists to help form my point of view.

It was the early 1980’s and I was at Arthur Young.  We had started to focus on high technology startups and, in fact, our San Jose office had been formed to focus solely on this market (Apple and Genentech were early clients.)  We had a national meeting of about 70 people – including a group that probably represented a majority the Venture Capitalists in the country.  One of the partners from Welsh Carson was doing a presentation and we were all anxious to learn how this very successful firm selected the best technology prospects in the world.  The Partner said that was easy.  The first 5 things they looked at were management, management, management, management and management.  Pretty clear message.

In the 1990’s I had a chance to attend some sessions with the brilliant strategist, Brian Quinn, from Dartmouth as part of the Tuck Executive Program.  We were discussing successful strategies in what was (and always is) an ever-changing world.  Brian consulted with many VC’s and, based upon his experience, had one key piece of advice; without a successful management team, most strategies were doomed to execution failure.

A few weeks ago, I was at one of our favorite spots, the ER Accelerator in New York.  I was talking with the team there regarding their selection of participants for the upcoming session they sponsor.  So, what was their focus?  It was simple; a solid team and a fair product trumps a good product and a fair team every time.

Growing and maintaining a successful company requires a good team; that is obvious.  As the leader, the burden is on you to recruit the right people and, more importantly, to not allow a true non-performer to remain because it is too difficult to part with a friend.  So, a few ideas to consider:

  1. Never be afraid to hire someone onto the team who is smarter than you (or the other team members.) There is something to be said for having the best athlete on your side.
  2. Chemistry rules but conformity is destructive.  Don’t avoid having someone on the team just because they may not be like the rest of you.  I counsel with a number of very talented individuals who, at times, do not maximize their contribution because they feel they are left-handed people in a right-handed world.
  3. Get input from junior team members on selection.  I have had the chance to be the one in charge and have rarely hired a person when my administrative assistant or a junior staff member felt it was not a good fit.  That unfiltered view can be extremely valuable.

Recruiting the right team members is one of the most important contributions a leader makes.  Keeping the team motivated and working as one unit (once they join) is probably a close second.  Spend the time on these important tasks and have the patience to develop your team so you can help ensure your company will be a success.