Madagascar – Where Being an Entrepreneur is a Way of Life

“Necessity is the mother of invention.” – old English proverb

My wife and I recently visited Madagascar. It is a beautiful country with unbelievable landscapes, great people and of course lemurs. As I am prone to do, I saw this world through my own “colored” glasses and personally believe there are more entrepreneurs there than anyplace I have ever been. Now before you think I may have stayed in the sun too long or had too many THB’s (Three Horses Beers), please bear with me.

I am not sure about the official unemployment rate, but we spoke to dozens of people from all walks of life while we were there. Except for one, all were what we would call in the US, independent contractors. They were paid when they worked (office and factory workers, those in tourism, etc.) and not paid when they didn’t. So to survive, almost everyone has their own “business” – from performing some type of service to raising crops to clothing boutiques. Every town we visited had a plethora (thank you Three Amigos) of vendors selling everything from food to clothing to kindling wood. So I contrast this with what I see here every day and realize there are two big differences.

First, Madagascar is very poor so there are no “friends and family” to help support you as you go off to develop some new product or service. They need their venture just to survive; to pay the rent or barter to get food for their family. They are the ultimate risk takers – figuring out what they need to do to make it through the day – they are not living comfortably at home (or with friends) writing code for what hopefully will be the next killer app.

Second, they are unbelievably resourceful. Now I meet smart startup founders every day and they certainly know how to deal with limited resources. In fact, when I hold sessions and ask participants to describe an entrepreneur, one of the most common responses is they know how to get the most done with the least. But there, this concept is taken to a different level. There is little money and scarce natural resources, yet we visited “businesses” that:

  • Made aluminum pots (the same my Mom used for pasta) out of 100% recycled aluminum. They used everything from old building siding to car parts. By the way – no kilns for heat; just charcoal and the molds were formed out of silica sand.
  • Created inlaid wood pieces from recycled wood. Here the key tool was a saw; the body of which was constructed from car parts and the saw blades from the steel found in recycled steel belted radial tires.
  • Produced miniature model bicycles from 100% recycled bike parts – everything from hand brake cable to old tire spokes.

So now perhaps you can see what I admired about the entrepreneurial spirit there. Necessity for them is the mother of invention – both the need to survive and the need to make the most from what is available. Perhaps this “way of life” will inspire you to work even harder to make your venture a success because as tough as you think it may be, you are probably not as burdened as the entrepreneurs of Madagascar.

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Do You Have What It Takes to Be an Entrepreneur?

“The difference between involvement and commitment is like ham and eggs. The chicken is involved; the pig is committed.” – quote attributed to Martina Navratilova

There seem to be more blogs and advice pieces today preaching of the coming evolution in entrepreneurship. It appears more graduates are trading in the traditional path of a career in a larger institution where they can learn a skill set for the opportunity to uncover some unwanted need in society and building a solution that can make them rich. For those of us who remember that famous scene in “The Graduate”,  “entrepreneurship” has replaced “plastics” as the one word of advice for a college graduate. We are also seeing more experienced people trading in that one final job in Corporate America for the chance to “be their own boss.” Entrepreneurship seems to be alive and well with role models like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos leading the way. (I guess it helps they are three of the four richest people in America.)

What is it that makes some of those who choose this route more successful than others? Many have written books, blogs and articles on what makes an entrepreneur. I have posted two blogs – “Can You Be an Entrepreneur?” (March, 2014) and “What is an Entrepreneur?” (April 2014) but it took a reminder from my sister (thanks, Ro) about the quote above to focus me on what it takes to make it as an entrepreneur. So, let me expand a bit further.

First, too many people use the word entrepreneur to describe anyone who is in business. I do not mean to disparage anyone, but the carpenter who works for a construction company and decides to start a small business and do a couple of jobs on his own when he is off is not what I consider an entrepreneur. An entrepreneurial venture should involve some risk taking; something that is disruptive and that creates value. It is not an avocation but the desire to solve a pressing problem.

I had the honor of having a front row seat to a cavalcade of successful entrepreneurs. I was fortunate enough to be involved for years in the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Program in New Jersey. Each year, we would be witness to dozens of successful stories from all walks of business. We had immigrants who came to the U.S. with no money or job or even a place to live but were committed to their vision and accomplished great things. We had a receptionist who learned her boss’s business so well that she bought it from him and made it an amazing success; and a toy manufacturer who introduced a product four times and after three failures, it became one of the best-selling products of all time. But none of them did it part time; the stories of sacrifice were emotional but inspiring. At the end of every EOY Gala, you could feel the excitement in the room; a renewed sense of commitment. A few winners announced they were inspired by what they had witnessed at previous galas and went on to accomplish great things. The common theme was one – – commitment.

So, if you have the real desire to be an entrepreneur, ask yourself if you are willing to sacrifice it all for what you believe in. Because the road to success is long and hard and those who are only involved will have a hard time making it to the end of the journey.

Keeping a Broad Vision

Scene at The Olympia Restaurant (from SNL skit)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Patron: I’ll have a grilled cheese.

Gus: No grilled cheese – – Cheeseburger

Gus: What do you want to drink?

Patron: Coke

Gus: No Coke; Pepsi

Probably one of the most difficult concepts for an entrepreneur to get his mind around is maintaining a broad vision. The concept of broad implies a wide ranging view while vision seems to suggest a certain focus. Seems to be an oxymoron – like jumbo shrimp. We encourage entrepreneurs to maintain that open view while continually harping on staying focused and this conundrum can drive the average business owner out of his mind. So let’s explore this a bit further.

Many of us remember the scene above from the famous SNL routine with John Belushi. You had to admire the tenacity of focus; but you were never going to get any form of potato other than chips, no entre other than a cheeseburger and no drink other than Pepsi. Pure focus like this can certainly define who you are but does it limit the customers you want to reach? Let’s consider another scenario. Why did Steinway and Yamaha have such different levels of business success? Some would simply point to a broader vision. While Steinway focused on producing pianos, Yamaha saw itself in the keyboard business. So when electrical instruments came along, electric pianos and organs were a natural extension of a broader vision.

Apple and Starbucks are also often sighted as companies who look beyond the utility of the products they deliver to a much wider view; focusing instead on the user experience to expand the appeal of their products to a much wider audience. In his book Start with Why, Sinek encourages us to continually look at the market through the eyes of our customers to always understand the true why of their purchase behavior. In essence, keeping a broad vision with focus.

I have seen this issue many times particularly with software development companies. They develop a great platform and in an attempt to demonstrate its capability, they build an application. Now that is all well and good until the application (versus the software) becomes the focus. Let me give you a real example. In the 1980’s, (“a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”) I had a client that had developed voice recognition software. Now I know it is popular today, but trust me in 1980, it was revolutionary. They decided to demonstrate this capability by installing the technology in a phone (remember pre cell phone days.) Being the accountant, I wondered why someone would buy a phone for $350 where they could pick up the receiver, say “home” and have it call home automatically when they could push the button on the phone that said “home” and get the same utility. Apparently, the market saw the same thing, so instead of using the money they raised to improve the technology and license it to others; I watched them go out of business with an inventory of high priced phones nobody wanted. They saw the phone as focus; I saw the software as vision. Put another way, I saw the Olympia as an eating establishment with personality – – not just a cheeseburger factory.

So when it comes to your vision, please work to make sure it is broad enough to create sufficient opportunity and not so focused as to preclude your ability to fully develop your vision.

 

 

Vision vs. Passion – Never Lose Sight of the “Why”

Colonel Sandurz: “Sir? Are we being too literal?”Spaceballs

Dark Helmut: “No you fool, we’re following orders. We were told to comb the desert so we’re combing it.”   Dialogue from Spaceballs, the movie.

When I hear aspiring entrepreneurs discuss what, at times, seems to be their “mission,” I often think of this scene from one of my Mel Brooks favorites.  Standard advice 101 for a new entrepreneur – maintain your vision and do not let others distract you from that vision.  This is usually accompanied by the standard “you have to remain passionate about what you believe” speech.  So, why discuss this subject at all?  I believe, too often, these concepts are confused which can work to the detriment of the aspiring entrepreneur.  At times, the concepts get taken too literally and many even interchange one for the other.  But, they are separate and it is important to understand the distinction.

A vision is the “why” in what the entrepreneur sees for his company.  It is the basic premise that helps define how what they are creating either solves a major problem or disrupts a market making it easier, safer or more convenient for a customer.  My standard example of the former is LinkedIn and the latter Zappos.  The value of being able to access currently employed individuals for new hire opportunities or provide easy access to shoes you might have to visit a half dozen stores to find was not lost on either of these creative company founders.  But, their original vision was not exactly on point.  They were both centered a bit more on their target communities and communication yet they were able to pivot to become market leaders.  While they let their companies evolve, they kept their vision (the “why”) clearly in the forefront.  By the way, my favorite read on this subject is Start with Why by Simon Sinek.

Passion on the other hand, is the fuel that allows an entrepreneur to continue to move forward despite the usual litany of obstacles (which usually center around people, money or a combination of both.). Passion is always among the top three (vision and perseverance are the other two) mentioned when describing admirable attributes of an entrepreneur. Note it is not just energy – energy is like gas and one can run out of fuel.  But, passion comes from the heart and as we all know (at least those of us who are living) the heart doesn’t stop.  It is this endless energy that helps entrepreneurs to survive; to outlast the elements and the trials and tribulations of the journey.  So, what is the problem?

Passion at times becomes the real or perceived reason to remain on a course when some solid objective evidence shows that maybe it is time to veer off the road for a bit. The famous “pivot” is difficult to achieve when one is passionate to a fault. Sometimes referred to as the “passion trap” an entrepreneur is lured into what becomes a death spiral because he fears a lack of passion will keep him from achieving his vision.  The world has changed but passion has blinded the entrepreneur’s perception of reality.  While there is no easy answer to this dilemma if you keep coming back to the “why” your vision will triumph and this will lead you to your ultimate goal.