Entrepreneurship: Will You Sink or Swim?
The intense interest today in starting your own business is reminiscent of the early dot-com days, when everyone thought they would spend a few dollars, quickly build a website, and wait for the bucks to start rolling in. Everyone of a certain age knows how well that worked out for most of those would-be entrepreneurs, but many young people haven’t taken the lessons of those frothy times to heart. They imagine that business success is something like jumping into the deep end of a pool and, after a moment or two of floundering, emerging at the other end as the next Michael Phelps. That doesn't happen.
There’s a similar strain of embarrassing arrogance floating around the West Coast, where the “Y” guys maintain that they can take a young, talented team of people with a mediocre idea and then, by the magical (and massive) application of their money, "expertise," and connections, invent a new and better business for the team to build. This is, by and large, utter BS, and the few pivots and successful examples that have resulted shouldn’t mislead anyone into thinking that this approach makes the slightest sense.
I get that everyone's dream these days is to work for themselves building an exciting new business. That's where we would all like to end up, but that’s not where the journey starts. The question you have to ask is whether you understand the incredible value of being a role player before you roll your own.
I recently spoke to a young man who said he really wants to work for a technology startup. I myself would like to grow at least 10 inches and play center for the Celtics. I'd say we have about the same prospects of meeting those respective goals, because just wanting something doesn’t make anything so. It's good to have desire, but the details don't take care of themselves. Passion needs to be melded with preparation and planning.
A goal without a concrete plan is just a daydream, or a delusion. Your plan doesn’t have to be the world's greatest, nor does it need to be complete or perfect. It's going to change a million times along the way, but it’s a place to start. As we used to say in the movie business, "The screenplay isn't the movie that finally gets made, but it's what gets the movie made."
And, as many times as I have said that an entrepreneur's ignorance can be a competitive advantage in some respects, the truth is that you don't get into this crazy game simply by knocking on a business's front door and asking nicely. If wishes were fishes, every boy would be driving a Porsche. But hope alone isn't a strategy for success.
So when I talk about the need to decide whether it's better at the outset to be a founder or to work for a startup and learn the ropes, the truth is that it isn't even a close question. The odds of achieving some ultimate happiness and financial success are at least 1,000 percent better if you take the time to learn your craft and develop a valuable set of skills in an area that interests you and where you've got some aptitude. After that, the sky really is the limit.
So plan to be a great employee and to grow into an important role player first; build your plan from there instead of from nowhere. Your idea may change over time, and in many cases it will have to, but with the right start you'll be able to make your own best ideas real, and that's critical, because this startup stuff is just too hard to be doing for someone else.
Just one note of caution: Try to work for someone who can teach you something of actual value, not a person who has been doing things the same way forever, or someone who's 15 minutes older than you and learning the job as he or she goes. Also, it's a really good idea to try to work for someone who has fewer emotional and mental problems than you have.
So that's job No. 1: get started, start learning, and go from there. Then, and only then, can you start thinking about your next step. Just like Cinderella, to get what you want you’ve got to bring something to the ball. You'll need the skills you developed in the jobs you've had before (not anything you learned in school), along with a killer work ethic and unbelievable persistence. With that kind of package, you're actually worth hiring. Then you can really start swimming.
HOWARD TULLMAN | Columnist
Howard Tullman is the CEO of 1871 in Chicago where, at the moment, 260 digital startups are building their businesses every day. He is also the general managing partner of G2T3V, LLC and Chicago High Tech Investors – both early-stage venture funds; a member of Mayor Emanuel’s ChicagoNEXT Innovation Council; and Governor Quinn’s Illinois Innovation Council. He is an adviser to many technology businesses and an adjunct professor at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management. @tullman