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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Signs of Danger - Excuses for Pay...

Entrepreneurs have an uncanny ability to make people feel very sorry for them. They play the victim with fervor and allow everyone around them to understand the true extent of their plight...especially people who are willing to hear them out.

I have consistently been one of those that would listen to the pitch and would then resell it in an operational setting. This is the entrepreneur's favorite move, get someone to listen, convince that person that they should sell the dream, and then disassociate from the process.

In almost every small business/start-up/entrepreneurial environment I entered, the interview always ended the same way..."as you know, we are small,start-up,etc so we cannot pay a lot, but when we go big, you are going to be well taken care of." This sounds reasonable and in industry, it is most often referred to as shared risk. What is often not well understood, especially by the Entrepreneur, is that the risk of those who accept this line is extremely high.

I know it is hard to believe, but not many of us are proverbial "plank-owners" from Google, sitting on a fortune looking for something to do. Most, if not all, are looking for careers and a way to feed our families. All too often, I experienced Entrepreneurs who believed that they were the only people who were sacrificing and even when they did accept the notion of shared sacrifice, they rationalized that theirs was somehow greater.

Rules to Live By (whether looking to work for a start-up or currently employed):
1. You are the absolute greatest asset that the Entrepreneur has. Without you and your talents, they cannot (more than likely), succeed in what they are doing.
2. If an Entrepreneur states that they cannot pay you at market rate, it is incumbent upon you to demand compensation outside of salary, they will never make you whole otherwise.
3. If you are going in to a trusted relationship of truly shared risk make sure that the Entrepreneur understands that and agrees. I would go as far as to say that you should demand an employment contract to avoid the fickle ways of Entrepreneurs.
4. Never, ever, take the Entrepreneur's word that you will get your pay day. Ask to see the books and understand how you are going to get there. If you cannot play a role in actively selling/developing the marketplace, you are trusting this person to do it.

It is always a lot more fun to believe that you are getting in on the ground floor of the next Apple or Google, but the reality is that most ventures will fail, protect yourself and do not get too tied up in the hype.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

They act like a bunch of kindergarteners...we could only hope!

Robert Fulghum's book, "All I Really Need to Know I Learned In Kindergarten", is a masterpiece in oversimplification of life and life lessons. Being an eternal pragmatist, I find extreme comfort in anyone who can aid my search to boil down an explanation to simple parts.

I have always been intrigued by what I can only describe as a complete disregard for practical interpretation on the part of entrepreneurs. Granted, if every entrepreneur were highly pragmatic and looked at life and business from the perspective of yes/no, right/wrong, success/failure, etc, we probably would not have very many new ventures. Even when presented with extreme facts, there is an ability, on the part of almost every entrepreneur, to disregard and evaluate under their own terms.

The problem is that they do not always follow the rules, the simple inalienable truths that Fulghum so brilliantly captured in his book:

  • Share everything.
  • Play fair.
  • Don't hit people.
  • Put things back where you found them.
  • Clean up your own mess.
  • Don't take things that aren't yours.
  • Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.
  • Wash your hands before you eat.
  • Flush.
  • Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
  • Live a balanced life - learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
  • Take a nap every afternoon.
  • When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.
  • Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: the roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
  • Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup - they all die. So do we.
  • And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned - the biggest word of all - LOOK.
For those of you who have worked for Entrepreneurs, there are few bullets from this list that we can point to as consistently followed by them. I do wonder if it is this string of omissions could perhaps be the common points of interest in an uncommon group of people? If that is true, then perhaps these individuals just did not pay attention in kindergarten and actually prove Fulghum's points even further?

A lot more study is required to determine the cause of this, but one thing is for sure, we are all better number 2's if we can adhere to these principles and bring them to light for our little kindergarteners...

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Time Management

It is Saturday evening, you are in the middle of dinner with your wife and probably friends you have not seen in weeks and your cell phone rings, or worse, you get an email from your Entrepreneur. This is not necessarily an indication of bad news. As those of us who have lived the life for long enough know, we are the ones who get the call: when he has a great idea and needs to talk about it now, he just saw something on TV and thinks it applies to us, wants to have more detail on an email you sent three-weeks ago and is only now reading, etc...

We live for this call. When we don't get the call, we have to assume that our time and usefulness must be coming to an end. If not for those mid-weekend or middle of the night calls and emails, we are surely on our way out...well, maybe not. I have made many mistakes in my time as a number two, but I can say unequivocally that my biggest mistake was making my time entirely too available to the Entrepreneurs that I worked for. I would work 15+ hour days in pursuit of their dreams and then field calls into the wee-hours of my supposed free time. I sacrificed my personal life because I saw that as my "equity" stake and how I was investing in this great company.

What I failed to realize and apply was simple economics (ironic since I have a BS in Quantitative Economics). Time, especially in small businesses and as it applies to Entrepreneurs, can be considered a commodity. The more of it [time] that you supply to be utilized by the Entrepreneur, the more of it that will be consumed, but as you make it more available, the value of that time drops. Though your personal perceived value may increase for a period (because you are so committed and valuable to the organization), in the mind of the Entrepreneurial Consumer you time value decreases because he can have more of it at the same price (i.e. whatever you are providing).

Here are some rules that you should apply when starting with a start-up or entrepreneur:
1. Time is Valuable - Every minute you provide to the organization is valuable and you should guard it closely.
2. Understand Supply and Demand - The more you supply, the cheaper the commodity (your time) becomes and the more that will be consumed (do not allow your time to be marginalized)
3. Force your Entrepreneur to Sacrifice - Your Entrepreneur will not think less of your if you do not take his calls over the weekend (unless it is an emergency, and unless you are a start-up nuclear reactor, almost nothing cannot wait until Monday).

Friday, July 22, 2011

Robin is not cool, Pinky is not stupid and Sancho Panza is a life saver

What do Batman's Robin, Brain's Pinky and Don Quixote's Sancho Panza all have in common? They all worked for industrious entrepreneurs. Ok, it is a stretch to believe that any of these three (with the exception of the Brain) could actually be considered entrepreneurs, but their behavior highlights some very key entrepreneurial characteristics and also shows how, without a good sidekick, most entrepreneurs are doomed.

Batman is probably one of the coolest super heroes ever created by DC Comics (clearly this is up for debate, but my opinions actually do count on this blog). Batman, also known as Bruce Wayne, did not have super powers, he was not from another planet and he was not irradiated causing some genetic power. In fact, Batman is very mortal. What Bruce Wayne had was a vision, he wanted his beloved Gotham City, which had fallen in to despair, to be safe. This is where you see the entrepreneurism come to light. Just like many other entrepreneurs, Bruce Wayne started with an idea or a moral idealism. He then created an alter ego to capitalize on that idea. In much the same way as an entrepreneur pours his life and fortune in to making their vision a reality, so to does Bruce Wayne in equipping his alter ego. There is one other aspect to Batman as well as Bruce Wayne, they are always the coolest people in the room.

Robin, or Dick Grayson, is not cool at all. He is a bumbling "kid" with little to no direction. In some comics he is portrayed as a wild child, but at the end of the day, he is the guy who states the obvious and is there to take the flack from his boss, Batman. Interestingly, Robin's ability to state the obvious is sometimes what leads Batman to "solve" the case. In many ways, this is the role that many of us have played for our Entrepreneur super hero. First and foremost, most Entrepreneur's view themselves as the coolest person in the room. Whether or not this is true or not will be topic for future debate and articles, but let's just assume that they are. Most entrepreneur's are highly social (as it relates to their ego) beings. They need to be told how great they are and how their vision and idea will change the world. Enter their trusty side-kick who can make the Entrepreneur feel good even on their lowest day. I observed this first hand in a technical startup that I worked at as a number two.

At times, my Batman would get down on himself, would worry that maybe he was heading in the wrong direction. I would routinely step in to state (and often restate) the obvious, "...this is hard work, we are doing something none had ever done, we have to keep pressing forward." Even more importantly, I played the role of punching bag. Consider the atmosphere of most start-ups: close quarters, limited leadership and not very many throats to choke. This is not the easiest role to play, in fact, I would argue that the absolute hardest job at a start-up is being the closest person to the action and not the Entrepreneur. We have this view of the carnage without the full knowledge of how good or bad things are. After all, no one can truly say for sure if we are on or off target as well as the entrepreneur and most times, they are the most guarded people you have ever met. So for the entrepreneurs who might read this, give your Robin a break from time to time, they hurt too.

One of my favorite animated series is Pinky and the Brain. I have not seen an episode since I was in high school, but I can say that I quote that show as much as I quote Seinfeld and that is saying something. The Brain embodies everything that makes entrepreneurism great. The episodes always ended the same way:
Pinky: "Gee, Brain, what do you want to do tonight?"
The Brain: "The same thing we do every night, Pinky—try to take over the world!"

The Brain: "The same thing we do every night Pinky, try to take over the world!"

EXACTLY!! In my utopian view of every Entrepreneur, this is how they go to sleep every night. They close their eyes each and every night either dreaming of a new way to take over the world, or determining how their current method will lead to world domination. These two lab rats get so close every single night, but always seem to fall short. Some would say that it is because they are two lab rats, so it would be impossible for them to achieve what The Brain schemes, but the reality is that The Brain fails, not because of his stature but because some inevitably goes wrong with a variable. What a great social commentary, but even better entrepreneurial commentary.

We all know this entrepreneur or inventor, the one that creates the perfect solution, plans for every aspect, but fails to materialize or monetize the solution because someone or something changed the rules along the way. They fail, and come back for more, over and over, because their vision drives them. And you also might know, or could possibly even be, the living personification of Pinky. We follow our entrepreneurial counterparts from company to company looking for the next indication of how we are going to take over the world. We might not have the nerve to go all in on the plan and say it out loud, but we are ready to support their effort and work as hard as possible to realize their vision. Pinky is not stupid or feeble as many would think.

If anything, he consistently pulls The Brain out of trouble and alerts him to the dangers he cannot see (mostly because he has his "entrepreneurial blinders" on), so dumb, no. What Pinky does have is blind faith in his partner. He believes that The Brain must know what he is doing and trusts that The Brain's plans will eventually serve them both, for The Brain to be able to take over the world and for Pinky to be able to have the full attention of his friend once it is done. Number 2's have a similar desire, we want to support the entrepreneur in what they want to do because, though we are not completely selfless, we do revel in watching someone else get all the credit. There is some deeper meaning to watching someone succeed for the Number 2.

As far as early literary works go Don Quixote (The Man of La Mancha) is probably one of the best embodiments of the entrepreneur. The crazy, probably categorically insane, antics of the main character can be closely aligned to almost every entrepreneur I have ever worked for. Don Quixote goes as far as to create his own reality to justify his existence and many would argue that once that reality was exposed as fake, it all but killed him. I have witnessed this first hand in the start-up. Most entrepreneurs will go to almost any length to justify and validate not only their ideas and vision, but also the manner in which they go about realizing those dreams.

This brings us to Sancho Panza, the wayward sidekick that was brought on by Don Quixote as his squire by asking him and promising him the governorship of an island. Given the fact that Panza was one of Quixote's neighbors, there is no doubt he saw just how crazy he was, but he still agreed and decided to see just how far Quixote would get. There is the chance that maybe Don Quixote was crazy enough to make it actually happen.
So the two hapless adventurers set off, Don Quixote on his skinny steed and Sancho Panza riding behind on his mule. Truly a great image of nearly every start-up and entrepreneur. Our entrepreneur counterparts riding gallantly ahead on an idea that is not fully realized and "skinny" and their supporters, and number 2's riding from behind on strong intentions and unwavering support. Don Quixote faced more adversity and trouble than he could possibly imagine (much by his own inability to filter what should and should not be said and done), but Panza was always there to make sure he got home safe.

I have spent many hours listening to and cringing at the musings of the entrepreneurs that I have had the opportunity to work for and with. Being the Number 2 is never an easy place to be, and it is almost always an under-appreciated position, but it is, in my opinion, one of the most important positions at every start-up. There are not too many examples of great companies being built on one person.

© 2011 Greg Saxon All Rights Reserved

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Entreprenuer's What?

Entrepreneurs are truly amazing people. In some cases, they risk all they have to fulfill a dream, or in most cases, satisfy an uncontrollable desire to make their idea in to a reality. These individuals are doctors, lawyers, moms, dads, kids and everything in between. There is some science as to who makes the best entrepreneur and I am certain that, given enough data points, we could figure out which of our children will be entrepreneurs.

To say that I am impressed with entrepreneurism is a vast understatement. I am enamored with truly successful entrepreneurs. I respect those that catch lightning in a bottle and then drift into the sunset, but I am even more impressed with those that risk it all, win big and then risk it all again. These are the entrepreneurial olympians, never satisfied with their current success, but must constantly reach for that next record.

I have had the distinct honor of working for entrepreneurs my entire career. From long standing, "Mom & Pop" shops to technology start-ups, I have truly seen them all. I have always played the role of supporter, whether it be as an operations director, sales enthusiast or chief evangelist when helping an entrepreneur sell his idea.

Some of the companies and entrepreneurs that I worked for were wildly successful and were truly the best bosses that I have ever had, while others were horrible failures with bosses that no one should be subjected to. The one underlying theme in each of these companies and so many other companies is that myself and others were there to support the entrepreneur. In so many ways, we put our reputations, our careers and our social life on the line to support their passion and enthusiasm. We lived in the shadow of entrepreneurism.

I recently started working for yet another Entrepreneur and was looking for some guidance and probably support (there should be some kind of 12-step program for us) for this new opportunity. The lack of writing and guidance is astonishing. I once attempted to join a "#2" group only to find out that the people who ran it were just looking to charge you $1,000 and not have very much support. So, my hope is that, through this blog and the comments that readers post, we can create a true Entrepreneur's Shadow Community. We share the same scars and have learned similar lessons, sharing them could possibly keep us sane and help our entrepreneur counterparts be better than they already are.