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Campaign Trail Lesson for Your Start-up

One of Mitt Romney's biggest innovations? He doesn't have a "day job." It turns out that's a big advantage, whether you're running for president or trying to run a business.
Former Massachusetts governor and 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at a townhall in Sun Lakes, Arizona in September.
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If you want to succeed in any entrepreneurial venture, there is no substitute for total focus.

Of course, most of us don't have this luxury. According to a study published in the Journal of Management Policy and Practice last year, at least 80% of entrepreneurs worldwide also hold outside jobs.

Which brings us to Mitt Romney, founder and chief executive of the start-up we might call, "Romney for America."

"The guy has ... been a professional candidate for six years and counting," Politico's Mike Allen wrote, in advance of the presidential debates.

Meanwhile, the Obama campaign says the president had to cancel some of his debate prep, "because of events in the Middle East, because of his busy travel schedule--because of just the constraints of governing."

A campaign spokesperson continued: "Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has been preparing earlier and with more focus than any presidential candidate in modern history. "

So is that really true? It turns out that not having a "day job" might well be a big advantage--and one that a majority of entrepreneurs might envy.

In the beginning...    

Romney first declared his candidacy for president on Feb. 13, 2007. He had ended his single term as Massachusetts governor the month before.

How long ago was that?

  • Well, President Bush had just announced the surge strategy in Iraq, sending 20,000 more troops to that country.
  • Unemployment was 4.5%. (It was 8.1% last month.)
  • Steve Jobs has just announced the first iPhone (although it wouldn't actually be available for another four months).

Since then, Romney he's been running for president full-time. That's pretty unusual. Let's take a quick walk through history.

In 2008, the presidential election included two U.S. Senators: Barack Obama and John McCain. Their political positions at the time became an issue after the financial crisis, when they had to balance campaigning for president with doing their jobs in Washington.

Four years earlier, in 2004, U.S. Senator John Kerry was the Democratic nominee against President George W. Bush; before that, Bush was the governor of Texas when he challenged the sitting vice-president, Al Gore.

Go back to 1996. Sen. Bob Dole was the Republican nominee against incumbent President Bill Clinton. (Dole resigned his seat four months ahead of the election to focus on the campaign.)

In fact, you have to reach back to 1984, or really 1980, to find candidates who followed the Romney model, focusing exclusively on running for president.

Walter Mondale was the Democratic nominee that year (four years since his last previous position, vice-president), and in 1980, of course, Ronald Reagan was the Republican nominee (five years--same as Romney--since his last previous position, governor of California).

Advantage: Romney?

So, it's rare, but does the lack of another position really give Romney an advantage? It certainly looks that way.

Since 1900, incumbent presidents have gone 14-for-20 in their bids for a second term.

Dig a bit deeper into the data, however, and you find half of the six successful challengers during that time period--Reagan, Carter, and Nixon--were among the very few who weren't serving in some other office at the same time as they ran for president.

Not a huge data set, to be sure, but the trend seems valid: Running for president is a heck of a lofty ambition. So if you want to achieve it, it makes sense that not having the distractions of another position would help.

Focus on the Goal

Oh, to not have other distractions, right?

I mean, how many aspiring entrepreneurs do you know who wish they could quit their day jobs to focus on their businesses?

Now, the last thing I'd argue is that any of us should do so prematurely.

In fact, if I had to summarize the No. 1 lesson from Breakthrough Entrepreneurship, it's that you should do everything you can to analyze and try business ideas before diving full-force into them. (In other words, maximum information for minimum cost.)

That said, there has to be something to this, right? Romney has kept the race neck-and-neck. For all of the president's vulnerability, that's a huge accomplishment in itself--especially when you realize how seldomly challengers succeed.

(Of course, it's actually easier to get elected president of the United States than it is to start and run a successful small business,  but that's a whole other column.)

The teaching point?

It's rare that any of us can focus our undivided attention on any entrepreneurial venture--whether it's a presidential campaign or a start-up.

But, it's rarer still that we can succeed without it.

 

Last updated: Oct 3, 2012

BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist

Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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