There’s something oddly remarkable about entrepreneurs these days.
So many of them are prepared to suffer for their business strategies, yet so few actually take the time to learn how to strategize.
Part of the problem, I suppose, is that it has become quite fashionable to call oneself an entrepreneur without really knowing what the word means. Or what the title requires.
But, necessity is the mother of fashion. When the economy as we once knew it dropped dead in 2008, many Americans suddenly realized: taking control of one’s own destiny and going it alone was as dicey as placing said destiny in the hands of the mysterious boardroom troglodytes that run big corporations with seemingly little else but their own interests—and the interests of their shareholders—in mind. Especially when they were running so many of those businesses into the ground.
So, really, entrepreneurialism was no longer a luxury or a choice. It was the last ticket to self-preservation.
What is your vision? What do you believe?
Entrepreneurship also became something of a quasi-patriotic procession. American history was written by entrepreneurs, beginning with the “Founding Fathers,” who dreamed dreams of self-government wedded to shrewd ideas of personal portfolio management; and then by packs of “rugged individualists” who succeeded them in the decades that followed. They are those singular, sainted figures of yore who continued to dream big, really big, and then created something even bigger: U.S. Steel. Ford Motor Company. Standard Oil.
It’s a perilous reality, too. There are ineluctable dangers associated with the entrepreneurial mantle that are easily and inevitably compounded when, for example, the starter of a startup doesn’t take the time or make the effort to understand the elemental points of strategy. This is not to say that one should drop everything and matriculate in the nearest accelerated B-school program before setting out to become the next Mark Zuckerberg or Sergey Brin.
Quite the contrary. To create a successful strategy as an entrepreneur, one doesn’t need B-school; one needs a vision.
Every strategy begins with some far-reaching, far-thinking view of what can be: A horseless carriage. A trip to the moon. A just and verdant world. Anything you want, really, just so long as everybody else in your world thinks it impossible.
It is, paradoxically, the easiest and hardest question you’ll pose to yourself: What is my vision? Because, what you’re really asking is, What do I believe?
Simple to pop. Tough to answer.
Often times, we don’t know what we believe until we’re tested; and there’s no greater test in America than starting one’s own venture from scratch.
Some would argue that taking swift action before knowing exactly “why”—and “to what end”—is better than taking no action at all. There’s some truth to it: we can all stand around making up our own lines in a venture-play, in the hopes that something like “Hamlet” will emerge before the curtain goes up, and the “play” goes public. Or we could start by envisioning the creation of a poem unlimited and design a plot and develop our roles accordingly in support of a boldly, bravely imagined narrative.
I guess it all depends on what it is we’re trying to do as entrepreneurs: improvise or strategize. If the latter, there are some things to bear in mind before we tease out a vision.
Idealism vs Opportunism? (Or Opportunism as Idealism?)
You know what you don’t want: You don’t want to work for anybody else. You want your name on the door. You want to keep your own counsel and your own hours. You don’t want to ask anybody’s permission to come in late, or to leave early, or to use the restroom.
That’s all well and good, but a vision that merely negates the status quo is not really a vision. A vision is a clear, strategically imaginative idea of something that exists beyond the realm of present possibilities. As you begin to divine your vision as an entrepreneur, you should probably figure out first if you’re out to make it big in the world or for the world. Either one is, of course, a perfectly legitimate underpinning to your vision. If you prefer to make your money first, then figure out how to save the world—great. It’s the old model of the enlightened industrialist, a la Rockefeller and Carnegie; and, among the living, Gates and Buffet.
Just make sure that whatever it is you’re “entrepreneur-ing” isn’t going to destroy the very world you’re hoping to help down the road. If you see opportunism as idealism then perhaps your strategic vision begins to shape up along the lines of social entrepreneurialism: An enterprising model with a mission-driven cause—Tom’s Shoes, Ethos’ Water. Don’t confuse this with “corporate social responsibility,” where the mission exists to serve the business. It’s the other way around.
All Original Goals Melt Into Air
Nothing is certain, not even uncertainty. Our belief about this or that changes from day to day because we change from day to day. Minute to minute actually, if one is paying attention—for example, you have information now that you didn’t have at the beginning of this article; info that may or may not influence future behavior. Either way, you have acquired knowledge—opinions, if you prefer—which hopefully has triggered more thinking, which will lead to more insights, causing the scales of the mind to tilt ever so slightly. (Keep reading and they will tilt some more.) Clearly, the judged—and the judges—are not stationary. Together, they are mutable, always in motion.
What does all this mean? The goal, that shiny city on the hill that you see in your mind’s eye, is never fixed. It changes as we change—and, often times, the closer entrepreneurs come to the goal, the more they will realize it looks nothing at all like what they imagined. That’s OK. On the road to one’s own private Damascus, the entrepreneur is faced with choices—choices in partners, choices in policies, choices in priorities. Sometimes, it’s a choice that leaves no choice but to kill one version of the dream in favor of another. The adaptable entrepreneur, the elastic entrepreneur, the one who knows that no goal is ever fixed, will claim the brass ring. The inflexible ones, who blindly and blithely pursue the vision of a goal unchanged, even in spite of their own interests, will find themselves leading the dreaded march of folly.
Think Beyond Yourself
Entrepreneurs are usually classified as type-A, single-minded, goal-oriented egoists; the free-market autuer who finds it positively inconceivable that anybody else can improve upon the manifest perfection of the vision. However, the most successful entrepreneurs understand from the get-go that self-centeredness is really a synonym for “unimaginative.”
They not only consider other points of view, even those that run contrary to the big idea; they use the sum of the knowledge and experience of others to imagine, fashion, and hone a shared vision, which in the end, is far, far greater and more powerful than any singly held notion. This unites coworkers—first followers, if you’re a startup—creating solidarity through a common purpose and true belief in a common cause, which helps to lay the groundwork for something known as “culture.”
And culture devours strategy every time.