Tag Archives: Entrepreneurship

Is ‘Do What You Love’ Just a Myth? Does it Matter?

The ‘do what you love’ lore in entrepreneurship is one of the most-often-misunderstood and most-often repeated mottos. There’s truth in the core idea. The business you build should reflect your strengths and weaknesses, and yes, what you like to do. But life isn’t that simple. heart golden egg

Obviously, when you set out to build a business, just doing what you love isn’t enough. It has to be something people want or need. It has to be something people will pay for. I love skiing and hiking and playing the guitar, but I couldn’t make money on any one of them. People will never pay me to ski or hike or play guitar.

On the other hand, you don’t just pick from a menu of hot new business ideas. You look at a mirror and consider who you are, what you like to do, and what you’re good at, not to mention what resources you have. All of that matters a great deal.

I always liked the advice of a professor at Notre Dame who suggested you should choose your major in college as if you were going to die the day after graduation. The idea is that what you like to study is the best way to choose which path you’re going to take later on. It reflects your nature, and, we hope, what you’re good at.

Last week Penelope Trunk posted worst career advice: do what you love on BNET. I hate that title because it oversimplifies the truth. But she ends up making sense, at least it does if you don’t take her title literally. It’s not really bad advice in the sense it’s normally meant.

First, she redefines ‘doing what you love’ in career terms as doing whatever you love most, something you’d do even if you didn’t get paid. That is not the real point. It’s taking the idea to an extreme:

So you will say, “But look. Now you are getting paid to do what you love. You are so lucky.” But it’s not true. I mean, there are things I enjoy more, and I discover new things I love all the time.

I like where she ends up, though:

Here’s some practical advice: Do not what you love; do what you are.

Which takes us back to the real truth. If you’re going to start your own business, it’s going to be work, there are going to be hard times, and you’re going to have to do a lot of grunt work. It helps if you’re in an activity or business area you like. And you’re doing something related to your strengths and weaknesses.

Most of the time, you like the things you’re better at. And, no matter what you do, it won’t always be fun.

An Entrepreneur’s Valentine’s Day Challenge

Today is a good day to object to all the phony entrepreneurship lore that has people putting aside life and love for business. The whole mystique of giving it all, being obsessed, and burning the midnight oil, while it might inspire some, leaves me as cold as ice. It’s a ruse. Don’t buy it.

Despite the common myth to the contrary, business passion, persistence, and perseverance do not guarantee business success. Using your business as an excuse to ignore relationships, people, and family is a mistake. Do what you love, yes, and love what you do; but stop it, often, to love life and the people you live it with.

I don’t like Valentine’s Day. Words of love issued on Feb. 14 seem a bit like the last-minute chocolates, flowers, and sweet-smelling upscale soap in the picture here: contrived, diluted, over-wrapped, and useful only at the last minute, if at all.

So today on Valentine’s Day I refer to something I wrote in the normal course of business, on a day that wasn’t Valentine’s Day. In Relationship vs. New Business, originally written in March of 2009, a student had asked me in email:

Would you have still left your job and ventured out on your own if your wife were absolutely unsupportive and opposed to the idea?

I said no. And answering the question reminded me of how important my wife’s support was to my own career. This is from my answer:

This is a tough question, obviously. Every case is different.

But we do glorify the entrepreneurial a bit too much, and we glaze over some of the risks involved. Sometimes. I know, my answer sort of spoils the story and the rah-rah of entrepreneurship, the idea that we follow our passion and overcome all obstacles. But it’s the truth. Businesses fail, and it’s naive of us to forget that sometimes they fail despite our best efforts. Sometimes the reluctant spouse is just plain right. Sometimes the failure to get investment, the obstacles that accumulate, are a message.

And looking at it realistically, there’s no denying, like it or not, that a spouse who doesn’t buy into the dream adds to the risk. You don’t want to throw the family into the mix. Plan more, research more, and either answer the objections or accept that the world is sending you a clue. Keep your job. Gulp: if you still have one.

Here’s a true story: Before I left a good job to strike out on my own, my wife said “go for it; you can do it.” And she meant it. At several key points along the way, she made it clear that we would take the risk together. There was never the threat of “I told you so; why did you leave a good job, you idiot!” What she said was “if you fail, we’ll fail together, and then we’ll figure it out. We’ll be OK.”

That was in 1983. Failures, dark times, three mortgages and $65,000 in credit card debt at one point didn’t help our relationship. But what we started back then survived, and so did we; we’re still married.

There are two entrepreneurs in that true story of the conversation with my wife, not just one. And entrepreneurship and relationships, if you want both, take two people.

Today, on Valentine’s Day, there’s still room for a reminder that real relationships are important for the other 364 days of the year, too. Say it right today, yes. But live it, don’t just say it.

Can You Pick the Entrepreneurs From the Crowd?

It’s almost two years now since I had a go at listing traits of entrepreneurs. It started with somebody else’s 10 signs you’re probably an entrepreneur list and then I came up with my own list, a few days later, 10 Traits of Successful Entrepreneurs. winter scene

And even a couple of years later, I still like that list. As a holiday gesture*, I’m reproducing it here, on this post. This is my list from 23 months ago:

  1. There’s a lot of talk about P-words: passion, perseverance, and persistence. I mistrust all three. A lot of unsuccessful entrepreneurs have them just as much. You have to have some variation on these traits, but you can have all three and still fail. You and I both know people who never made it and never stopped trying. My favorite P-word in entrepreneurship is planning, but that’s just me. Stubbornness is good too, even without starting with P.
  2. I like empathy, as in understanding how other people think and feel about things. Empathy leads to understanding what the people you sell to want, what they need, how they think, and how to best reach them. It’s hard to imagine somebody building a company without being able to put themselves in the buyer’s state of mind.
  3. A sense of fairness. For dealing with vendors, customers, and employees.
  4. Transferable values. This is closely related to the sense of fairness. I just don’t see people building businesses without believing in what they’re doing.
  5. Willingness to work hard, shoulder to shoulder with other people. Cliche, but true: the harder I work, the luckier I get.
  6. Knowing what they don’t know. To me that’s much more important than what you do know.
  7. Listening carefully. Shutting up.
  8. Vision for what they can build. Imagining a happy future. Dreaming.
  9. Making mistakes. You have to deal with failure. Keep pitching.
  10. Jumping viewpoints, like from short- to long-term in an instant, mixing those viewpoints together. That’s like dribbling, keeping your eyes up while managing the ball at your feet.

That list also produced several very good comments. They add a lot.

Since then, I’ve been following these traits of entrepreneurs, watching the research, and the more I get into it, the more I doubt the whole idea. Sure, it’s fun to write about. But what makes us entrepreneurs is that we don’t fit molds. Regarding risk, leadership, passion, work-life balance, goals, and so many other things, the truth is we’re all over the personality trait map.

(* Holiday sounds like some kind of a gift from me to you, when it’s actually just revisiting some older posts, quite possibly because of LDMDD (Late December Motivation Disappearance Disorder — a phrase I first heard from Steve Woodruff on Twitter. So I’m admitting, the holiday gesture is self serving.)

(Image credit: Steve Weber/Shutterstock)

On Teaching Business With Business Plans

Remember that old saying about teaching people to fish, instead of giving them a fish? That applies to business planning as well: don’t give a person a business plan, help them do their own instead.

I’m in San Antonio Texas today attending the annual conference of the Association of Small Business Development Centers (ASBDC), where I did a workshop yesterday on using the business plan as a teaching tool. It reminds me how I got into this business planning specialty in the first place. It was because the business planning brings together everything that’s important in a business, from strategy to market to metrics to numbers.

All of which reminds me once again that what works to help people with business planning is to help them develop their own plan, to teach them how, rather than just to do a plan. What you want as an end result is somebody who can use planning process to run the business. It’s not about having a one-time-use document, it’s about planning over the long term, which means regular plan-vs.-actual review, course corrections, and management.

Keep it on the computer. Update it often. And when you need to show it to somebody, that document you print: that’s output, not the plan. It’s an image of what the plan was on the day that you printed it.

And, for teaching entrepreneurship, the business plan is a great way to give a student a full view of what it takes to start and grow a real business.

5 Points On Gender Gap in Entrepreneurship

Go ahead, you can ask: what do I know about this? I’m an old white guy, so take what I have to say here with some healthy skepticism. Woman's handsBut I like to think my eyes were opened up to gender inequality by my pre-hippie question-authority mother back in the early 1960s, and kept open by 40 years of marriage to a smart, strong woman and 38 years of fatherhood to four now-grown-up, well-educated, and successful daughters (and one son).

So here’s what I know about this:

1.  The statistics are confusing at best.

Statistics on entrepreneurship, startups, and the like are hard to decipher. It looks like women start more companies than men, but it also looks like those companies get less capital and financing. Some will argue that women-owned businesses perform differently, tend to grow slower, or stay smaller.  The truth, however, is that we really don’t know. There are lots of different studies with different results. I can find statistics or studies to justify just about any conclusion I want on this.

2.  Women are under represented in high tech and startups.

We can argue the causes, maybe we could find competing statistics if we search hard enough, but startups and high-tech companies are disproportionately male. The playing field isn’t level. It’s not statistics, it’s seeing the obvious. Women are under represented in startups. Professional investors are mostly men, and venture capital and angel investment goes much more to male-dominated teams. And commercial loans favor men. I say this from what I see myself, as a frequent judge of business plan competitions, an angel investor, and as an entrepreneur who speaks at public forums.

3.  I don’t believe the stereotypical explanations.

Some people say women are under represented by choice, because they choose not to grow, or they like to stay at home, or because of similar reasons. Here too, if you search hard enough, you’ll find studies and statistics and experts to sort of support that idea. I don’t believe it.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the differences I’m aware of between men and women. Gender difference is the spice of life. But I don’t believe those differences have anything relevant to do with who’s starting companies getting funded, getting loans, or growing their businesses.

I was once in a discussion on how we could make Business Plan Pro more attractive to women. I was angry, back then, with the tone of the discussion. What, make the box pink? That was years ago, and it still makes me mad. Business planning has absolutely nothing to do with gender. Entrepreneurship has nothing to do with gender, except that the field isn’t balanced.

4.  We men don’t know how tough it really is.

Sad but true: none of us men really know how hard it is. We look around and we see lots of women working side by side; things are certainly a lot better than they used to be. But let’s not kid ourselves.

For example, men don’t have to deal with some significant percentage of the population — wrong, of course, but still — assuming we’re bad fathers if we work hard; or that we should be at home taking care of the children; or that the house/home work is ours, because of our gender, regardless of the rest of what we do.

We don’t get up to the podium in a business plan contest as a woman looking out on a sea of male faces in the audience . We don’t stand up in a venture capital conference room or angel investment group as a woman looking out at 90% male faces.

5. So what do we do about it?

That’s the real question. I wish I had a better answer. At the very least, the men in the crowd can recognize that it’s there, think about it, and make sure that we’re not contributing to the problem. Where we can, like in our local angel investment group, we can seek out successful women who qualify to be accredited investors and invite them, maybe even urge them, to join. We can at least know that those women we meet in startups along the way have overcome a lot of mindless stereotypes, and are still fighting them. We can wake up and at least recognize the imbalance. Then maybe we can fight it one situation at a time.

On the larger scale, entrepreneurship is contagious, so we should respect and encourage the women’s entrepreneurship groups, the women’s banks, women-oriented investment funds, and the official government efforts (like the SBA’s Women’s Business Centers).

Hooray for gender differences, yes; but not for gender differences in opportunity, education, freedom, or chance to make your own success.

Are Entrepreneurs Made or Born That Way?

There’s been a fair amount of discussion since Vivek Wadhwa posted Can Entrepreneurs Be Made? on TechCrunch late last month. He quotes Kauffmann Center research indicating, he says, that entrepreneurs aren’t really born that way.

We found that the majority didn’t have entrepreneurial parents. They didn’t even have entrepreneurial aspirations while going to school. They simply got tired of working for others, had a great idea they wanted to commercialize, or woke up one day with an urgent desire to build wealth before they retired. So they took the big leap.

different strokes

I think the problem is that we try to generalize way too much. Everybody wants to find a pattern, but things are more random than that. Entrepreneurs aren’t a homogeneous manageable type or group. They are a bunch of very diverse individuals.

This is just anecdotal data, obviously, but it makes me think. My wife and I have five grown-up children, all raised in a household steeped in entrepreneurship, serial startups, and chronically broke. Of our older three, all in their middle thirties now, one is certain he never wants to start his own company, one is immersed in entrepreneurship and has been involved in virtually nothing but startups, and one is really hard to tell one way or the other. With the other two, still in their twenties, it’s too soon to tell.

I’m one of four siblings. None of the others are entrepreneurs, and I am. Our parents were not entrepreneurs.

Every case is different. Every startup is different. Business education helped me get going on my own, but not the next person. Growing up with it helped one of our children, but not the next one.

Find your own place.

5 Entrepreneurship Basics B-Schools Can Teach

I’ve been asked a lot lately about business schools and entrepreneurship, which is why I did this post, last Friday, about one thing wrong in that area; and then this one yesterday, on whether business schools can teach entrepreneurship. That’s become a very interesting discussion. I expect to post on it again, if only just to summarize some of those comments.

So, in the meantime, looking at Twitter and comment reactions to yesterday’s post, I sat down today and thought about what you can learn about entrepreneurship in a classroom, that will help you be a successful entrepreneur. Not that you can’t also learn all of this from books, websites, mentors, and advisors too; but learning it in class might be more efficient.


1. Cash flow

Cash flow is critical but not intuitive. Cash isn’t profits. That ebb and flow of cash related to accounts receivable and inventory management, collection days and payment days. This one by itself justifies studying entrepreneurship. Studying this in the classroom is way better than learning it the hard way. One cash flow disaster (running out of money) in business can cost you more than two years in business school. Easily.

2. Business planning

Yes, I really like business planning. I’ve liked it since I was first exposed to it in the middle 1970s. Don’t get bogged down in the formal academic full business plan, necessarily; but business planning is a great way to see a whole business, from strategic focus to objectives to specific milestones, tasks, responsibilities, management, sales, marketing, and finance. And it’s a great tool for teaching.

3. General business fundamentals

Never underestimate the fundamentals of strategy, marketing, data gathering, finance, and analytical thinking. There’s a lot to be said for learning how to translate concepts to numbers and back to concepts. Not to mention vocabulary, and analytical frameworks, and methodologies for isolating problems and layout out solutions. Disciplines and methodologies are good to know. And hey, buzzwords don’t hurt.


4. Communication skills

Writing — clear, simple communication, in practical English sentences — is so important. It is so often underestimated. And presentation skills, focusing on what’s most important and communicating that to others. My experience is that good business schools teach that.


5. Skepticism

A good education can teach you what not to believe, and why not. Enthusiasm is great, and you hear so much about passion and persistence and all, but not without a basis for reviewing what makes sense and what doesn’t.