I spend a lot of time with entrepreneurs -- some would say too much time -- and invariably the conversation flows into the first few years of our businesses. In small, intimate groups, almost every entrepreneur admits that there wasn't a grand vision for their businesses. It was more like a random series of events that led to their now-growing and successful business.
However, for some reason, many entrepreneurs want to whitewash their early years and retell the story with a different beginning. These entrepreneurs feel some sort of need to have had a brilliant vision for their business from day one. I call this the Vision Myth. I've felt this pressure to tell the story of how my company got started with some sort of intelligent vision in place.
Many entrepreneurs make up a story whereby they had this brilliant vision right out of the gate, rather than tell the truth -- that the first few years were not perfectly planned. But this is a dumb idea. Not just because it's silly to lie about it, but also that it serves to add complexity to running a business that doesn't need to be there. In a down economy, many people ponder starting businesses and study other entrepreneurs. The Vision Myth keeps some of these people on the sideline for the wrong reason.
Sure, there were many brilliant entrepreneurs who had vision on day one, but that list is much smaller than is reported. The problem is that when an aspiring entrepreneur looks at starting a business, they often spend more time on vision and mission than on their primary goal -- to go out and make money.
When I left Deloitte to start Greenleaf Book Group in 1998, I knew that I was starting a publishing company. But to say that back then I had a vision of the company that I now am lucky enough to run would be a bold-faced lie. I didn't know how successful we'd become. I didn't know we'd have New York Times bestsellers and make the Inc 500. I didn't know we'd hire some of the best talent away from top companies. I didn't know we'd take jobs away from Random House and Harper Collins. My goal was simple -- to make money and hopefully do most of my work with books.
But we did a lot of different things. We sold shoe-trees (the cedar pieces that help dry shoes and keep their shape). We had a newsletter, we sold a video, and I started doing speaking engagements. At the time, any of those revenue centers would have been viable businesses for me. The reason I went with publishing is that it was the most viable -- not because I had the vision.
So I'd like to call out to all entrepreneurs to be honest when you tell the story of your first few years. Not just because whitewashing it is a silly waste of your time, but also because being honest might just encourage someone else to remove the shackles of a 9-to-5 job and go out to start a business. Is there any better gift you could give someone?