Musings And Dialogue On Entrepreneurs And Decision Making (Part 6)

The following backdrop and questions apply to this part of the series of musings and open discussion on entrepreneurs and decision-making (See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5):

Are entrepreneurs more willing to fail than other people? Does this relate to the exploration versus exploitation differences in the sense that entrepreneurs may simply continue exploring new opportunities until they find one that works? How should they trade off a willingness to walk away from a faltering opportunity against the need for persistence, on the chance that the opportunity can still be saved? Do you think this behavior explains serial entrepreneurs?

Here are my off-the-cuff thoughts on these exploratory research questions. Subconsciously and by choice of profession, entrepreneurs are generally more willing to fail than others, particularly when their entire livlihood and financial security are not at stake. This has been one of the most common perspectives that I had been ingrained with, particularly as it relates to debates on founder liquidity (and restricting it). That said, entrepreneurs (and particularly serial entrepreneurs) do not consciously believe that they will fail. They seem to generally have an attitude of "I will win".

To the decision-making question of "walking away" versus "persistence" for a faltering opportunity, I believe that entrepreneurs should consider leveraging mechanisms, such as:

  • having a good principal/partner as a founder that can complement the skillset of the CEO
  • seeking Board of Directors input
  • having an informal "godfather" (established in advance) that the principals or the CEO can turn to for important decision points and/or when disagreements arise in the management ranks.

As to what drives serial entrepreneurs, my thinking is that appetite for creation, personality type, need for independence, promise of financial gain, and ego tend to drive the serial-types more than decision-making tendencies of "walk away" versus "persistence". That said, often serial entrepreneurs have a personal investment philosophy that in the long-run, by starting and running ventures, eventually one of them will pan out very nicely, and they will have learned from their failures and flops. Failing is an important part of the process, and I even remember an executive recruiter for Sequoia Capital commenting to me during an interview for a position in the late 90s that the major downside to my resume at the time for being venture capital associate was that I had not "founded and flopped" a business.

What are your thoughts and experiences?

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Musings And Dialogue On Entrepreneurs And Decision Making (Part 5)

The following backdrop and questions apply to this part of the series of musings and open discussion on entrepreneurs and decision-making (See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. Note that there will likely be a total of six parts for this series with a recap summary of feedback at the end):

One difference between time and money is that money can be stored (inventoried) for future use, but time cannot – it’s use it or lose it. This allows money to be fungible; you can move it around as you need it. For large companies, time can become fungible by hiring or firing workers; entrepreneurs don’t usually have this luxury. How does the inability to store time affect entrepreneurs, especially in comparison to larger companies? What does this imply for time management?

Here are my off-the-cuff thoughts on these exploratory research questions. For permanent changes in capacity (e.g., related to building new capabilities or downsizing), my experience is that hiring and firing of workers is a more painful process in a large company. This has to due with all of the process, legal, HR, budget, management alignment, etc. that cuts across many groups. The larger company, however, has more resources and a greater margin for error. Larger companies may also benefit from having some supply-side agreements in place to readily outsource to consultants or contractors, although the complexity of these contracts sometimes makes it more difficult to source specific, single resources. The upshot, off-the-cuff, is I would hypothesize that larger companies would be somewhat slower in terms of making changes to capacity, that changes can be more efficient in batches, and that margin for error might be a bit larger (on average).

Entrepreneurial firms may be more cash constrained and have less margin for error. That said, they may be quicker in terms of hiring and firing if only because there may be fewer formal processes. What may be working against entrepreneurial firms are that since resources are constrained, they may not always use HR support (e.g., recruiters) in terms of sourcing candidates. To compensate for this fact, I have often found in entrepreneurial situations that one may rely on informal networks more for the hiring process. This may provide an improved screening process for entrepreneurs. The informal networking may also have auxiliary benefits for the entrepreneur (beyond the hiring process itself, such as getting sales leads or industry info) so entrepreneurs may be able to get multiple benefits more easily through the hiring process. All-in-all from a capacity model perspective, my experience is that large capacity changes are harder in entrepreneurial firms, and margins for error are smaller. Yet changes can be quicker, more customized, and dovetail with other efforts.

What are your thoughts and experiences?

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Musings And Dialogue On Entrepreneurs And Decision Making (Part 4)

The following backdrop and questions apply to this part of the series of musings and open discussion on entrepreneurs and decision-making (See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. Note that there will likely be a total of six parts for this series with a recap summary of feedback at the end):

New research is uncovering differences in types of decisiveness – for example, someone who can’t decide which dessert they want after dinner may not be the same as someone who puts lots of research into buying a car. When does a lack of decisiveness come from the need to get more information, and when is it simply putting off a decision (procrastination)?

It is very hard to generalize. As context, my immediate gut thoughts are that, in general, there are both emotional (e.g., "in the moment") and rational factors (e.g., looking at data) that entrepreneurs need to balance in order to make good decisions. Successful entrepreneurs will tend to be those that either have good business instinct from prior experience in the industry or comparable market and have an ability to look at facts. Alternatively, successful entrepreneurs may be those that have exceptional, innate, outlier-type business instincts and abilities to judge and facilitate people which compensates for weaker abilities to in analyzing factual information systematically (alternatively they may partner with someone who has these skills). I think it would be the rarer exception for a successful entrepreneur to be someone who can only look at rational factors, but this could work in areas like the hard sciences where intellectual property and ability to appropriate profits is high.

With that as my frame, to the question "When does a lack of decisiveness come from the need to get more information, and when is it simply putting off a decision (procrastination)?" my thinking is:

  • If the entrepreneurial team has a balance of experienced emotional- and rational-based decision makers, then putting off a decision is procrastination when the team cannot articulate what additional information or context would be needed to make a decision.
  • Alternatively, if the entrepreneurial team is made up of primarily experienced, emotional-based decision makers, then putting off a decision is procrastination either when they have made similar judgment calls in the past with substantially less information and risk or when they do not identify what complementary resource they need to help with the decision (e.g., legal counsel).
  • Alternatively, if the entrepreneurial team is made up of primarily rational-based decision makers, then putting off a decision is procrastination (presuming context such as market timing is right) either when past experience and knowledge is needed (e.g., prior entrepreneur consultation or complementary resource such as sales VP) and not sought or when excessive analysis is performed.

The basic gist is that I feel that entrepreneurs procrastinate (presuming the market timing is right) to make a decision when neither can they articulate what additional information is needed to make a decision nor are they actively seeking the complementary resource (in terms of balancing functional and emotional/rational decision-making traits) that they need to make an informed decision.

What are your thoughts and experiences?

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Musings And Dialogue On Entrepreneurs And Decision Making (Part 3)

The following backdrop and questions apply to this part of the series of musings and open discussion on entrepreneurs and decision-making (Part 1 here and Part 2 here. Note that there will likely be a total of six parts for this series with a recap summary at the end.):

Some researchers talk about humans trading off exploration (testing the environment) against exploitation (using resources once they’re identified). For example, see link about small children’s learning behavior here. Do you think entrepreneurs are more focused on exploration or on exploitation? How does this compare to other jobs?

My off-the-cuff thinking on these questions are that entrepreneurs tend to be stronger than other workers in terms of exploration mainly because exploratory skills align with the creativity skills that entrepreneurs often have. Whether entrepreneurs focus on exploration versus exploitation, however, has to do more with what type of business is being pursued than something specific to the entrepreneur's disposition or decision-making style relative to non-entrepreneurs. For example, if the entrepreneurial business is something relatively unexplored (e.g., introducing a household device that can interface with your computer for printing paper that can be folded into edible food), then the entrepreneur needs to tap into exploration skills. On the other, an entrepreneurial business that is a copycat business (e.g., introducing a lowest-cost mobile phone provider in a new geography like Canada), well then the entrepreneur needs to focus more on exploitation (with potentially small customizations or market studies in the local market).

What are your thoughts and experiences?

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Musings And Dialogue On Entrepreneurs And Decision Making (Part 2)

The following backdrop and questions apply to this part of the series of musings and open discussion on entrepreneurs and decision-making (Part 1 was here):

In many corporate environments, employees are very aware that time is money. For example, consultants become very accustomed to thinking about an hour of their time having a very specific dollar value, and that becomes a salient opportunity cost when they decide whether to spend time working on a task. Do you think entrepreneurs are as aware of the dollar value of time? Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Do you think it could explain some of your observed differences in decisiveness?

My thinking on these questions are that consultants tend to be more aware of their opportunity cost of labor than others, if only because bill rates are usually widely known in terms of $/hr internally within the firm and often with the client. From this perspective, however, I don't really see much of distinction between entrepreneurs and those salaried within a traditional company. I think it is atypical for entrepreneurs and those working within a traditional, non-consulting company to think in terms of either hourly opportunity cost or activity-based cost. In my experience, these latter groups are more focused on goals. I think employing the hourly opportunity cost concept to entrepreneurs and those working in companies could potentially be beneficial, but I have not seen a lot of this outside a manufacturing context.

What are your thoughts and experiences?

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Musings And Dialogue On Entrepreneurs And Decision Making (Part 1)

A bit of a new angle on this blog, this post is related to the early-stages of a research effort by my wife (who is a professor of marketing at UCLA's business school) with respect to entrepreneurs and decision-making. Though I am no scholar in the area of entrepreneurial decision-making, I understand that the area of overconfidence in entrepreneurs is a well-studied and documented bias, but that there may be other biases and decision-making characteristics of entrepreneurs that could be better understood.

The basic idea is that if you can better understand biases and faults in decision-making processes of entrepreneurs that one can improve the decision-making of entrepreneurs through training.

With that as backdrop, I'd welcome perspectives on a series of questions that I'll be posting here.

The first questions are, "How much of being a (successful) entrepreneur is innate personal characteristics (things like risk taking or creativity), and how much is a learned ability to manage behaviors (like ability to be decisive or to manage time well)?"

Here's my off-the-cuff perspective (as a person that does not consider himself an entrepreneur but a person closely involved with entrepreneurial ventures and approaches):

  • Nature – There's some things that entrepreneurs are born with. These things include dispositional characteristics like being a risk-taker, having a need for independence, having drive for success, being creative, having strong intuition, having persistence, and having stamina.
  • Nuture – There's some things that entrepreneurs can learn. These things include learning how to better communicate, how to network effectively, how to make decisions, and how to recognize proxy markets and adapt learnings. Potentially nuturable areas are learning empathy, sales, and trade skills relevant to intellectual property development (e.g., engineering, software design).

What are your thoughts and experiences?

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What The Entrepreneur And The MBA Taught One Another

Two topics that I frequently see discussed in online forums, blogs, and articles are entrepreneurship and MBA degrees. In such venues, perspectives and responses are often very polarized, and it would not be unusual to see different camps characterizing the relationship of entrepreneurship to MBA training as either highly relevant or highly irrelevant to one another.

Rather than taking an argumentative approach to distill relevancy, one of my former colleagues (Paul Brown, an entrepreneur & founder, PhD degree) and I share a few things below that we specifically learned from one another (with Steve playing the role of non-entrepreneur, MBA degree). The context is during an enterprise software startup that went from Seed financing to Series A corporate venture capital to Deloitte Rising Star to sale/merger over a period of five or so years.

Some key things Paul got or learned from Steve (my notes taken from discussion and correspondence with Paul):

  • Level of professionalism added – Having an MBA-trained person on the team changed professionalism not so much in demeanor but in the total approach to business. The MBA perspectives complemented a very technical, software R&D organization that sold highly technical products.
  • Concrete methods and processes added – As opposed to piling receipts in the corner of the room and calling the pile "our accounting books", having an MBA on the team introduced discipline and methods in finance, sales, competitive intelligence & benchmarking, Board meetings, etc.
  • Business literacy added - Perhaps an understated item but by adding an MBA competency to the team it helped to make a difference in key company situations as to whether we were taken seriously or not by others (e.g., partners, investors, customers).

Key lessons that Steve learned from Paul:

  • Business experimentation is part of the entrepreneurial spirit and approach – Although I may have paid lip service to this in the past, I recalibrated myself away somewhat from business role models where managers are expected to "know the right answer" a priori. When you are paving new ground as in an entrepreneurial venture, there is tremendous value in conducting safe tests (such as floating an idea with another entrepreneur or an industry veteran, presenting a new pricing plan to a niche distributor).
  • There is value in tapering the need to make hasty decisions – Something that has always stuck with me for many years was something that I remember reading about the Harvard Business School training method. Students were pressed to make decisions and calls based on information (however limited) in a case study. In reality, this type of mentality is reinforced in many business school and business settings. The mentality is that one will always have incomplete information whether in a managerial, case study, etc. setting, and one needs to make decisions as a manager. Boom, boom, boom, done. Although I have not fully formulated my thoughts in this area, what I believe I learned from Paul was that the entrepreneur may benefit not from procrastination but by delaying critical decisions as long as there is time to either gather additional information, see activities play out, or let management team emotions clear. (I know – my idea is a bit convoluted in its current form, but I am onto something and will revisit).
  • If you want to appreciate entrepreneurship truly, you must witness someone with total willpower, drive, and endurance – I don't think I need to say more here, other than Paul has these characteristics.

Paul, thanks for the lessons!

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Blog Interview On Consulting For Chicago Booth Corporate Strategy and Management Group

I did a blog interview for the Chicago Booth Corporate Strategy and Management Group (student-run organization for part-time and evening program). The interview (link here) covers areas such as typical week in the life of an independent consultant, common problems currently facing clients, and the most helpful MBA training I received at Chicago.

Aside from the fund raising item I mentioned in the interview section on current client issues, I also shared the following (which characterizes one current client philosophy on approaching prospective consulting projects):

… The other theme I have been seeing more of is in the operational process improvement area. The themes here, however, have not been so much around improving profits as they have been about weathering the economic storm and making improvements that increase either customer satisfaction or quality of services and products. Clients, on the balance, are more conservative right now. Whereas the smart executives and managers may have been going for broke before and taking bigger chances, they now see making continuous improvements as a must-do (not necessarily demonstrating immediate margin or revenue improvement until after the storm lifts). As additional light, some executives are missing their revenue numbers in the current (bad) market climate, but they are making their net profit numbers. These companies are using the stable net profits as their bulletproof vest with their Boards while using consultants in very targeted ways or in controlled “entrepreneurial experiments” to help build for the future.

As an independent consultant, I increasingly need to use my network to read the market (as opposed to having information flow to me from "The Firm". Don't know whether others are seeing similar things or not. Please feel free to share your thoughts.

Venture Capital Test Suggests Some Weaknesses About MBAs and Consultants

Paul Brown tipped me on Guy Kawasaki’s post on the Venture Capital Aptitude Test. (Disclosure: Paul’s kind words come from years of he and I working together in a startup where he and the other developers did all the hard work) . Thanks, Paul.

In Guy’s post, Guy gives two positive nods two areas I’ve had lead roles with (engineering & sales) and disses two other areas I’ve been also been involved with (MBA and management consulting) in terms of how it affects one’s ability to be a venture capitalist.

Guy writes about management consultants:

The three worst backgrounds for a venture capitalist are management consulting, investment banking, and accounting. Management consulting is bad because it leads you to believe that implementation is easy and insights are hard when the opposite is true in startups.

Guy writes about MBAs:

Finally, there is the issue of the pertinence of an MBA to venture capital. The upside is that such a degree can provide additional tools and knowledge (such as calculating that 25% of $1.6 billion is $400 million) to help you make investment decisions and to assist entrepreneurs. The downside is that earning this degree (and I have one) causes most people to develop the hollow arrogance of someone who’s never been tested. All told, the downside of an MBA outweighs the upside.

While I won’t address Guy’s claim about the whether these areas are good or bad for venture capitalists (as I can’t claim to be an expert about picking good venture capitalists), what I will address is Guy’s claim that "Management consulting is bad because it leads you to believe that implementation is easy and insights are hard when the opposite is true in startups" and "The downside is that earning this degree (and I have one) causes most people to develop the hollow arrogance of someone who’s never been tested. All told, the downside of an MBA outweighs the upside."

On the point about management consulting I simply disagree (with no disrespect) with Guy. Guy’s statement is an overgeneralization. There are different types of consulting firms out there, and Guy’s perspective may be more influenced by pre-2000 practices. Consulting firms pre-2000 that were focused on strategy might have more of a tendency to be focused solely on stategy, but these firms got burned by making recommendations without focusing on ease of execution. On the other hand, there were firms that grew of of an implementation background (and potentially interim management background) and moved upstream into more strategy consulting. Although markets started to overlap a bit, structurally I think consulting firms and client were better off by having this type of cross breeding.

All said, if one has not spent any time managing or working in a business role prior to management consulting, I think this can be a weak point that one needs to work on careerwise. But there are strong benefits to management consulting that should not be underestimated either – by working in management consulting, one can get exposed to the internal operations of a lot more firms than one could by working for one firm straight for five to ten years. In five to ten years as a consultant, one may have seen the detailed operations of twenty to forty firms versus two to five as an operating person.

On Guy’s point, "The downside is that earning this degree (and I have one) causes most people to develop the hollow arrogance of someone who’s never been tested."

To this, all I can say is that my hypothesis would be that MBAs may tend to attract arrogant people [who overstep their bounds in terms of what they think they’ve accomplised over non-MBA entrepreneurs]. I don’t think the MBA naturally breeds this type of person.

Overall, I think Guy is onto something when he says people should value the difficulty of implementation and value and proximity of market insight. I also think he’s onto something when he talks about arrogancy affecting the ability of VCs to do the job effectively. But Guy’s characterization overly discriminates against consultants and MBAs. What about the negatives to engineers who only think about technical beauty and miss the market need? What about the salespeople who only sold what the customer already bought and never hunted for a deal?

Updates (12/4/06): Guy here. Charlie here.

What I Didn’t Learn From Bjorn Borg I Learned From My Brother and From Startups (The Importance of Sales)

Last month I was bit dismayed to see that one of the great tennis players of all time, Bjorn Borg, was putting up his Wimbledon trophies up for sale to help with financial security for those close to him. Bless Bjorn and his family, but the news was a bit sad for me.

When I was growing up playing tennis, I identified more with John McEnroe, who was a lefty, serve-and-volley type, and phenomenally natural player (true McEnroe had a temper on the court). Borg, on the other hand, was a baseline player, more of a machine and a model of physical perfection, disciplined, and gentleman-like. Borg played with an exaggerated Western grip which facilitated huge, looping forehand swings, and topspin shots that were out of this world.

One of my first tennis racquets was a Bjorn Borg Bancroft racquet. I got it as a reward for selling probably hundreds of candy bars in the Little League. OK – I didn’t personally sell more than two of those hundreds of candy bars. My parents and my brother were the salespeople that should be credited for the sales. My brother, who has always been a genuine, people person, was eager to bring happiness to others door-to-door in the form of chocolates and his bright smile.

Prior to working directly in new sales (not existing clients) for a startup, I had a total aversion to salespeople. Salespeople were a bunch of scum suckers, slimeballs, and shysters looking to rip off innocent people. But working in a startup forced me to understand more about the craft, process mechanics, compensation structure and legal docs, management and measurement techniques, and styles of salespeople from a hands-on point of view. In short, I developed a deep appreciation for sales, and I came up with my own style of sales. I basically develop a sales style that is oriented towards helping other people first and then allowing sales to stem naturally from that (as opposed to forcing things unnaturally).

Digressing a bit, at Chicago’s b-school (before my sales experiences), I took a new business venture course from a visiting Harvard b-school professor. The Harvard professor taught the class with an heavy emphasis on the entrepreneur having strong sales qualities. I found this to be in stark contrast to the entrepreneurial finance course that I took from a Chicago professor which emphasized a more holistic look at a venture in its approach.

I never really appreciated the importance of deeply understanding sales until somewhat longer into my professional career. Now I live, breathe, and appreciate sales in all of my jobs, even when sales are not my responsibility. Cutting one’s teeth in sales has been one of my best professional experiences, and I would especially encourage those seeking entrepreneurial endeavors to try out the profession/functional role at least once. If you can get in a situation where you must both source and close the deals, that’s an ideal opportunity to pursue. Not only does understanding sales help one appreciate the "cash is king" mantra in a venture but also it helps one to understand other people better.