The leadoff batter is arguably the most important offensive weapon on a baseball team. His job is to get on base—it doesn't have to be pretty. He could make it to first with a bloop single, get walked, bunt his way on or make a mad dash for first after the catcher drops the third strike. His success is measured not by the number of home runs he hits or even his batting average but by his 'on-base percentage.' If he gets on four times out of every 10, he's doing very well. (Ted Williams holds the record for career on-base percentage at .482.)
The more powerful hitters follow the leadoff batter in the lineup. The slugger, typically slotted in the fourth spot, has the task of swinging for the fences and driving home the players who got on base in front of him. A slugger's chances of hitting a home run are much lower than the on-base hitter's of getting to first. If a slugger hits one home run every 11 times at bat, he's doing extremely well.
Knowing one's role is essential to success. Sluggers shouldn't try to bunt their way on base, and the greatest sin of a leadoff hitter is to go down swinging for the fences. As with baseball, I've noticed that business owners can be divided into 'on-base hitters' and 'sluggers.' Knowing which you are is critical to happiness and success.
'On-base hitters' are the business owners who have a series of successful business start-ups. Like the on-base hitter, they would prefer small, regular successes over less frequent but larger wins.
Rene Lacerte is an on-base hitter. His latest business, bill.com, is a software platform he created after exiting PayCycle, an online payroll business he co-founded. He started PayCycle from scratch with his partner, Martin Gates. Once the business got going, he recruited Jim Heeger to run it. Jim is a proven manager, having held big posts at Adobe and Intuit. One of the things I admire most about Rene is that he knows he's an on-base guy and has no illusions of being able to swing for the fences by running a larger business. He'd rather get on base with a number of start-ups than run one business for his entire career. My bet is bill.com will be followed closely by another start-up.
Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx, is a home run hitter. He's owned one business in his professional life and has had the patience, stick-to-itiveness and talent to grow it into a Fortune 500 company.
Both Lacerte and Smith are successful entrepreneurs who have built valuable companies, but one is an on-base hitter and the other a slugger. Interestingly, I don't think Lacerte would be happy running FedEx. He'd probably be bored and get bogged down in the complexity. Likewise, I'm not sure Smith could cope with the uncertainty and ambiguity of Lacerte's life as a perpetual starter-upper.
I think one of the most important determinations a business owner can make is whether he or she is a slugger or an on-base hitter. The on-base hitter can focus on starting and exiting lots of smaller businesses in a career and not harbor second thoughts when heading for the exit. In contrast, the slugger would be best served by making a single business their life's work.
John Warrillow is the author of Built to Sell: Turn Your Business into One You Can Sell. He has started and exited four companies. Most recently John transformed Warrillow & Co. from a boutique consultancy into a recurring revenue model subscription business, which was acquired by The Corporate Executive Board. In 2008 he was recognized by BtoB Magazine's 'Who's Who' list as one of America's most influential business-to-business marketers.