Entrepreneur is not a job description. Success is not a destination.

Margaret Thatcher said “If you have to tell people you are a lady, your aren’t” or something like that.  Is it the same from entrepreneurs?  At a French wedding they announce your name and profession and our friend was an entrepreneur. There were audible giggles.

What got me thinking was that I was interviewed for a documentary where they had to select an entrepreneur, and they chose me.  Bizarre. Flattering. Weird.  They wanted to talk to someone who was “successful”.

Is “successful” a destination?

But like others I have met who have built and sold businesses, we find it difficult to be nostalgic as we feel the best is still to come. Successful sounds like a destination. But I’m just 50. What am I going to do for the next 40-50 years if I have now “got there”? You hear stories of people who work their whole lives looking forward to retirement and 2 years after they retire they are dead.  I believe we are all like bicycles. We all need to be heading towards something otherwise we fall off.

You hear the same issue for Olympic athletes who have strived, trained, dreamed, sacrificed and clawed their way to a Gold medal. The rush of anticlimax after the award ceremony is palpable. It is even worse if they had given up years of their life to finish 4th or 10th or 2nd.

The same is true for entrepreneurs who are focused on a goal, and ten have their company acquired and suddenly need to find a new focus. Some throw themselves into the transition and integration, but that is not the same as setting a bold vision and leading the company.  They are now an insignificant cog in a large machine, but with a huge bank balance (we hope).

And the next thing

Many of them do not stay in the corporate machine that acquired them for very long. I know some that will stay for no more than the first day. They need to be actively engaged in “the next thing”. Back onto the roller coaster of fleeting success and crashing despair – day in day out.  Perhaps it is a little easier with a healthier bank balance, but that doesn’t dim the fervor and focus. Perhaps it reduces the passion because their back is not against the wall.  But that all changes when the first employee is recruited. No longer is it about money. It is about results and supporting the team. Suddenly, others lives are in your hands – again.

A time and a place

You need to hang out with people your own age. Nothing is more embarrassing than the 50 year old trying to be cool and hip, dressing like a 20 year old and trying to be 20.  You need to grow old gracefully.

The same is for entrepreneurs. If you are great at startups, or have built a fantastic startup, then at some stage you need to accept it is no longer a startup.  As you gain staff, revenues and compliance requirements, the company cannot operate like a startup and maybe you are not the right person to be running it.

I have no idea what that correct number of staff is, but you cannot have over 2,000 staff or revenues of north of $500m and keep the entire company working like a crazy RedBull fuelled start-up.  But there are many startup CEO’s desperately hanging in there. Now I am not advocating unnecessary bureaucracy, but there does need to be some structure. Sure we all want to keep that innovation and fizz. But some areas of the business crave structure, process and efficiency.

CEOs hold on too long

sigmoid-curveCharles Handy, the British philosopher, talked about 2nd change thinking or the Sigmoid Curve. The basic premise is that the new thing needs to be started whilst the old or current thing is still working well. That is because is takes time for the new thing to be developed and established before the old thing is starting to wane.  Except the problem is you don’t know when the old thing is going to peak, and you need to start the new thing way before the peak. The temptation is for the CEO to hold on and hold on before launching the new thing. Who wouldn’t they. The old thing is still going great guns. Often too late, and before the new thing has gathered momentum and revenue the old thing is already in decline, taking the CEO with it.  Apple described it well “We need to obsolete our products before the competition do”

Innovation is the engine of growth

Luckily not all entrepreneurs make their millions and retire to the golf courses of the Algarve or beaches of the South of France.   Many follow the US model or getting back up and building another one – serial entrepreneurs. Along the way there are bound to be business and product failures. We need to embrace failure. If we do not then  we will smother the flame that burns inside would-be entrepreneurs who are prepared to risk everything. Risking everything means getting it wrong lots of times before you get it right. And we need these people to start companies, invent products and services and employ people.

What do you call me

Entrepreneur is too much of a catch all to be a job description.  Successful entrepreneur is even worse.

Call me Ian.  It has worked for the last 50 years pretty well.


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