How Anyone Can Learn from Entrepreneurs
Entrepreneurial narratives are everywhere. From executive education classes to TED to General Assembly's own enterprise programs, it's not difficult to find the story of a successful entrepreneur in almost any industry. These stories inspire not just aspiring founders, but also innovators within Fortune 500 companies and creative agencies.
But what are we to take from those stories? How does anyone - even someone within a larger organization - draw meaningful, applicable lessons from an entrepreneur's first-person account of success? After all, there's a huge element of randomness in any new venture. For example, Chad Hurley and the founders of YouTube made a lot of great decisions, but they weren't the first team of smart people to build an online video site. In the words of investor and entrepreneur Chris Dixon:
"I’d been around the web long enough to remember the dozens of companies before YouTube that tried to create crowdsourced video sites and failed. [...] YouTube built a great product, but, more importantly, got the market timing just right."
But every stock trader knows that timing markets can be impossibly hard, so taking lessons from YouTube's success is not only difficult, it's dangerous. Drawing the obvious but - in many cases wrong - conclusions from a entrepreneurial success story can lead to cargo cult thinking, wasted money and lost time.
Applying lessons from entrepreneurship within larger companies can be even more challenging. Innovators within large institutions and brands know that bringing new ideas to the table isn't enough. In addition, they must overcome organizational inertia and traditional mindsets to effect change.
So how do we learn from these stories? Here are five tips from my experience:
1. Failure is a data point too. Many people focus only on entrepreneurial successes, when in fact just as much can be learned from the much-more-numerous failures. Learning from others' failures is an efficient way to ensure you don't repeat them. And keep in mind that even within successful companies there are always numerous products, initiatives, and hires that failed. Studying how great teams fail and react to failure is one of my favorite topics of conversation with entrepreneurs.
2. Appreciate the details. Entrepreneurship is a game of finer points, not broad strokes. Success is often the product of many small decisions on topics that can range from landing page design to company culture to early brand decisions. A deep discussion of these topics - and how entrepreneurs came to key decisions - can be far more informative and interesting than broad questions like "How did you come up with the idea?"
3. Meet the lieutenants. It's practically a cliche to say that an entrepreneur should surround him- or herself with great people. But it's also fundamentally true. Great entrepreneurs recruit great managers, and many of the critical decisions in a successful company's history are made by non-founder operators, not the founders themselves. Often these operators know how to wield "soft power" in a way that is much more applicable to innovators within large organizations who don't have a founder's moral authority.
4. Understand persuasion. At the earliest stages, entrepreneurs need to convince others to see things their way, to ignore the obvious pitfalls and believe in a vision. Without that power of persuasion, it is impossibly difficult to find investors, recruit early hires, and close clients. Whether starting a new company or innovating within an existing organization, those abilities are universally applicable and one of the best practices to learn from successful entrepreneurs. When watching an entrepreneur speak, it can be more informative to pay attention to how they are saying something than what they are saying.
5. Metrics, metrics, metrics. Great entrepreneurs set key metrics closely tied to their success and drive their teams toward those metrics. Understanding how entrepreneurs chose the right - or wrong - metrics and incentivized their teams to pursue those metrics can paint a detailed picture of how a company's operations, finances, and culture are all integrated. And like the other tips here, how a startup sets metrics should be very similar to how a department within a large company sets them, making the lessons very applicable across organizations. While the methodologies used to succeed may shift as a company grows, the key metrics should not.
I believe that anyone can learn from an entrepreneur's story regardless of their role. With these pointers in mind, entrepreneurial stories can be vastly more educational and applicable.