Over the years I have figured out that I am just wired a little differently from many of my friends, classmates, and fellow attorneys. It almost sounds cliché, but throughout my life I have always held the belief that pretty much any problem can be solved if we have the time. Where most see problems I, like many entrepreneurs, see opportunities. When others panic, I methodically think through a situation which can resolve the issue at hand.
One such infamous instance occurred one evening over a few drinks between some attorney friends of mine. As we meandered through small talk and the drinks continued to flow the topic of conversation turned to interesting legal issues we had recently encountered.
In my case, one of my clients had recently encountered a frivolous lawsuit which, because of the nature of the legal system, threatened to cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend. The kicker, he hadn’t done anything wrong. At this point I know what you are thinking. “Sure, nothing wrong you say.” Seriously. Nothing. Nadda. But being a savvy business person my client decided to settle the matter quickly and pay out about $50,000. The problem? If he had to pay off one frivolous lawsuit when was the next coming? He didn’t want to have to deal with this again. No one should. So when it was all said and done and the settlement check had cleared he came to me and said, “Matt, I never want this to happen again. What do we do?”
So we sat down one afternoon and brainstormed all of the possibilities. How had he gotten to this point. How could it be prevented. After a few hours of bouncing ideas off of one another we kept circling around and coming back to one theme, one possibility: an innovative corporate structure that would preclude the possibility of his being served with a frivolous lawsuit. Could it work? We wrote up the model. Diagrammed out everything that could happen. We tested and re-tested the model and tested it again. By the next day we had done it. We had created a model so simplistic in nature but so soundproof in design that he was, essentially, insulated from the form of frivolous lawsuit that had led us to this innovation. Success and opportunity inspired by need and stoked by the belief that a solution could be achieved. It was that simple.
As I relayed this to our attorney friends (with a tad more detail than shall be printed here) the response I received was, to paraphrase Rip Torn from the movie Men in Black, everything I expected from attorneys trained in the ivory towers of big firms in Washington, D.C.
“You can’t do that!” one yelled. “Why not?” I calmly responded. “Because, you just can’t.” “Why?” I replied starting to wonder he would articulate his reasoning or just sit there with that befuddled look on his face. “Because,” he started, his resolve noticeably turning to frustration, “you just can’t.”
“You say that it cannot be done, yet you cannot say why. Might I suggest to you that it can be done, you have simply never seen this before and, as such, are rejecting the same for that reason alone.” Steam began to shoot from my friend’s ears. His face reddened. His posture became more hostile. “You can’t!” he loudly exclaimed bordering on yelling, his frustration now clearly getting the best of him.
“Again, I’m getting the fact that you do not believe in this. But why? It works. I’m telling you just because it has not been done doesn’t mean it can’t be done.” After a few more rounds of unsupported objections to this new structure I finally dropped the death blow: “Not only can it work, six months ago I set up one of my clients with the structure and, to date, no more frivolous lawsuits.” A deathly silence gripped the room. His steely glare let me know all that I needed to know, that he would never agree with me yet had no response to challenge not only my theory but also my evidence the innovation had worked.
Ultimately, the tension was broken by an empty glass in need of refilling. The battle was over, the lines drawn, but no matter what I brought to the game there was simply no convincing my friend that an innovation had occurred and that simply because it had never been done before did not mean it could not work.
So what’s the take away here? People like my lawyer friend should never be an entrepreneur. They are just not wired for it. They only want to see and live in the what is and cannot see the what can be.
As I have traveled down the road of entrepreneurship I have learned many lessons. Perhaps the one that sticks with me the most, as alluded to above, is that entrepreneurs, on the whole, are simply wired a little differently than others. We prefer structured risks where others seek security. We adapt and are challenged by obstacles where others lament their fate. We look for solutions and strive to achieve them where others are confined to what is readily known and accepted.
So if you are considering becoming an entrepreneur or if you already are and are wondering if you should remain as one here is a simple four-part test you can take to see if you are wired like an entrepreneur:
1. Problem Spotter vs. Problem Solver
Are you a problem spotter or a problem solver? What’s the difference? A problem spotter is someone who can see a problem but offers no constructive solution to address the same. In life the majority of people you will come across can see a problem but cannot or do not solve it.
I’ve been involved in many start-ups over the years. Some that got off the ground. Some that did not. For those that failed to get off the ground the vast majority did so because they got bogged down with too many problem spotters and did not have enough problem solvers.
Back in the late 1990s, at the height of the dot com era, I was involved in two failed ventures that died specifically because of problem spotters. We would start almost every meeting with a discussion of what had been achieved since the last meeting via-à-vis product development and then, inevitably, the Debbie Downers would start rattling off lists of “issues” they had problem spotted that were going to interfere with bringing the product to market. Mind you, the Debbies never proposed solutions. They just loved standing up and telling us how this would not work or that would be an issue. “Thank you so much concerned citizen. Now sit down unless you have a solution!”
On the other hand, a problem solver is someone with true value. They can not only spot a problem but can also craft a solution to the same. Most importantly, they bring to the table a view that even if spotted we will get past the problem so let’s figure out a way to do so. Obviously everyone will vary in the quality of their resolutions. But the distinction between the two is the key.
Problem spotters only spot the problems. Entrepreneurs spot them and offer a solution therefore. So are you a problem spotter or a problem solver?
2. Handling Stress
Another key factor for entrepreneurs is how they handle stress. Every job has stress. But entrepreneurs have to recognize that each day will often create new challenges, new stresses, and they must be able to cope with the same and work through the issues causing the stress to achieve their objectives.
On one of my office walls is painted the iconic slogan “Remain Calm, Carry On.” To be an entrepreneur you must be able to function in the stress of the moment and be able to recognize that you may not know what tomorrow’s will bring, but stress will come, and you will have to get through it and carry on. I have this slogan painted on my wall as a constant reminder of this fact.
Case in point. We recently brought on someone here at The Trademark Company who I knew was use to big corporate life. Following training he was put into full service in the division he was to be serving in. I had had some reservations as to whether he would fit in to the company and our culture here but looked past them given our personal relationship and nevertheless brought him on board.
Within days of him going into full service I could notice the stress building upon his brow. Every day grew slightly more tense as I could tell he was bottling things up inside. Finally, after a couple of weeks dodging the issues we finally had a sit down to see how he was handling his new position.
Following a prefatory sigh, he launched into his concerns over a certain aspect of our business which he felt contained significant structural flaws. I mean he brought it down like fire and brimstone and end-of-days type of stuff. He was so stressed out about this issue I thought I was going to have to open the bottle of Jack Daniels I keep in my office with the sign over it that reads “In Case of Emergency Fill Glass.”
To his surprise, after he had finished voicing his concern I simply looked up at him, smiled, and said “Thank you. I am aware of that issue. But, candidly, it is really not that big of a deal. Don’t stress over it. In the grand scheme of things of matters I worry about at night I would place it about 37th on the list.” “Thirty-seventh?” he said incredulously. “Yeah, that’s about right.” I replied. “Like what would be above this on the list?” he inquired. Over the next few minutes I rattled off just a few which would appear in the 20s. I didn’t really want to have to open my emergency bottle after all. In the end I think it made him feel better that I was aware of the issue but that my concern was much less about the same. The situation did reveal, however, something very important about my friend: he does not handle stress well and, in particular, the stress of dealing with an entrepreneurial-type of venture.
Ultimately, he left the company amicably. I often wonder if he sits up at night pondering what the top 10 were. In the end, I believe that to be a successful entrepreneur you must be able to handle stress and function despite the existence of the same. Remain Calm, Carry On.
How do you handle stress?
3. Challenge vs. Opportunity
How do you view a challenge? Do you look at it as an obstacle that simply must be dealt with or do you see it as an opportunity to achieve and possibly even bring a new product or service to market?
Within the course of our business we deal with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) on a daily basis. One of our principal missions is the prosecution and registration of our customers’ trademarks with this organization.
We have now been in business long enough that we have seen pretty much everything the USPTO can do to refuse a trademark application or otherwise. As such, we have developed tried-and-true systems to get our customers’ trademarks registered through these refusals when issued where possible.
For those of you who are not familiar with the USPTO, it is one of the best-run and most efficient government organizations in the United States. Occasionally, however, the USPTO will change or clarify the manner in which it examines specific types of trademark applications or will simply issue what is known as an Examination Guide instructing its examining attorneys on how to deal with a specific issue they are seeing in trademark applications. Often these examining guides have no effect on our customers’ trademarks. Sometimes, however, they can lead to a whole new wave of refusals for a reason we have yet to see or saw less frequently prior to the issuance of the new Examination Guide.
Rather than lament these new guidelines as merely another challenge to our customers’ ability to register their trademarks, we seize the opportunity and craft systems designed to circumvent or satisfy the new requirements issued by the USPTO to ensure our customers’ trademarks maintain the same high rate of registration they have always enjoyed under our stewardship. Sometimes these systems can be included in our current service pricing structure. Sometimes they lead to the development of an entirely new service line for our customers.
The critical thing, however, is how we view the new Examination Guides: not merely as challenges to our existing services but rather as opportunities to create a better line of services for our customers.
How do you see the world? Filled with challenges or opportunities?
4. Dreamer vs. Finisher
We all dream of a better tomorrow. Whether it is the oft-uttered “I’m going to quit my job and write the classic American novel” or “I’m going to open up my own business.” Dreams are a great break from reality and let our minds take us to places that provide freedom from the day-to-day challenges of our lives. But be careful, entrepreneurship does not treat dreamers kindly. That is not to say that being an entrepreneur and being a dreamer are mutual co-exclusive. Dreamers are often some of the best entrepreneurs. But, unlike many of us, entrepreneurs must not only be dreamers but finishers as well.
What’s the distinction? A dreamer comes up with great ideas. Inspiration can come from anywhere. From envisioning a revolutionary product because of everyday experiences in one’s life to tackling the larger ills of society. But what separates a dreamer who lays out vague cocktail-party plans for a business and a truly successful entrepreneur is the ability to finish.
Dreaming involves seeing a very narrow scope of the big picture and what the good or service could do and how it will be received by the consuming public. Finishing involves rolling up the proverbial sleeves and conquering all of the tasks that will be required to actually bring that product to market.
For instance, a dreamer may be great at articulating the grand vision “Wouldn’t it be cool to create a product that mimics the sensation of consuming food by and through electro-stimulation of the portion of your brain that deals with the pleasure of eating?” At a party, a dreamer may bring this thought to life exposing the virtues of a new weight loss system that replaces food consumption with cerebral stimulation of the portion of our brain in lieu of actual consumption (Can you tell I attend a lot of exciting cocktail parties?). But for the dreamer, this is where it ends. There is no plan. There is no focusing on all of the steps to bring the product to market. There is only “Wouldn’t it be cool if…”
The Finisher, the entrepreneur, on the other hand, has the ability to take the idea, move it along all phases of development while maintaining interest in the product, and ultimately bring the product to market. In short, an entrepreneur finishes. Under our example, the dreamer, once sober, gives little thought to this innovative weight-loss system. The Finisher maps out a plan for everything that will be needed to bring the product to market dealing with all of the minutia on a path to get the job done.
So are you a dreamer or a finisher?
In the end, if you are a problem solver, handle stress well, see opportunities where others see barriers, and finish the life of an entrepreneur may be for you. Beware, however, if you exhibit the other traits referenced above. If so, you may wish to stay on a more defined path.