So… you want to start a business. And you want to know the most important thing? Forget capitalization, the right industry, the board of directors or the business model. Why, it’s the entrepreneurs’ gene, of course. For decades, scientists have been trying to isolate and replicate this elusive gene but have thus far been unsuccessful. The objective is to make the gene generally available so that anyone can be a Jobs, a Zuckerberg or a Bezos. (Note: in a free, democratic and fair society, why should only entrepreneurs be blessed with the entrepreneur’s gene? So elitist.)
Here is what scientists know about the Entrepreneur’s Gene
Entrepreneurs have a number of unusual qualities. First, they are smart – unsmart entrepreneurs become un-trepreneurs real quick. They are indefatigable, accustomed to years and years of long, grueling hours. They inherently know that to be an entrepreneur the gene requires nurturing, fueling, and developing with continuous inputs of data, insight, and experiences.
And they persevere, Thomas Edison, one of their Gods, famously said: “I never failed, I just learned 10,000 ways how not to make a lightbulb”. The devout have no understanding of failure, but they do understand how to try, try again. Not the same way every time, mind you, because doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result is endemic of insanity, according to Einstein, definitely an entrepreneur. Freud, recently voted into the HOF by the Entrepreneur’s Writers Association, would tell you that the entrepreneur is delusional and perhaps insane (Van Gogh was reputed to have the gene, and yes, he was maybe crazy, but ohmygawd inventive – have you seen his stuff?)
Entrepreneurs have an unbridled audacity of belief. The audacity to believe they have an idea that no one in the history of human civilization thought of before them. The audacity to believe that their start-up (not just can, but) WILL work; that others will follow, that still others will invest and an army of others will buy.
The Entrepreneurial Personality
And here’s where the audacity crosses over into insanity: they believe the rules do not apply to them. Eight or ten new ventures fail? Not mine. The regulations don’t allow it? These will change. VCs will never invest? They haven’t heard the pitch. Turns out that the gene makes the entrepreneur hearing impaired. They can’t hear the words ‘no,’ ‘impossible,’ ‘this can’t work’ or ‘are your nuts?’
Similarly, the laws of physics and just plain simple rules that others accept and regard are ignored by these renegades as if they don’t recognize them. These qualities start to emerge in youth, as early as pre-school: ‘Why is Johnny not joining circle time but building a 1:24 scale replica of the Eiffel tower with blocks instead?’, or ‘Why does Jane doodle – her stuff complex, advanced, inscrutable – when the class is supposed to be learning about the famous clothespin decision of 1932?’
Scientists have also discovered that the entrepreneur gene is closely identified with the pirate gene, the guerrilla gene and in particular, the MacGyver gene. Entrepreneurs have to make everything out of nothing and decisions quickly, assertively and without hesitation. Some of these are a matter of life or death (we refer here to the life or death of the company, not the entrepreneur or employees). Invariably these crucial decisions are made with too little data and MacGyvered interpretations of the evidence.
Captain Kirk was an entrepreneur. Un-trepreneur Spock, God Bless, would always share with Kirk the odds of surviving, say, a surprise attack on the Klingons with some new, unproven torpedo (has anyone ever called Roddenberry out for having a ‘torpedo’ in space?) which were as infinitesimal as Congress passing something useful this session. Kirk would smirk (earning him the moniker ‘Smirky Kirk’) and do it anyway. He sneered at the chances, cast aside the playbook, ignored the rules to save the universe, in a crazily creative, ridiculously risky, never-been-tried-before way each 50-minute episode. And it always worked out. Now that’s an entrepreneur. Except for the “always worked out” bit. That’s Hollywood.
I also find that the gene is inherited, and sometimes by osmosis. Many entrepreneurs grew up with entrepreneur talk around the dinner table, and entrepreneur-friendly parents. ‘Oh, she’s getting Cs but has an IQ of 145? I’m good with that’. Lest we forget, Einstein redrafted all the universal rules of physics as a Swiss patent examiner. I don’t know much about Switzerland’s patent office, but I have to imagine that it’s a black hole for talent, and despite his prophecy to the contrary, Einstein escaped – but he was probably the only one. Like I said, the entrepreneur gene is irrepressible. Its genius ascends on canvas, in a light bulb, or in the stars… but it appears.
Entrepreneuring is a total-brain full-contact sport. Be shy and die; delay – you’re the prey; you can’t be polite and fight. Both brain hemispheres are tingling with firing synapses that meld into… analytical creativity. Oxymoron? Jay Walker, friend, genius, founder of Priceline talks about the difference between data… and information. Data are numbers, plain (very plain) and simple. Information is numbers animated. DNA is a string of amino acids, the building blocks of life. But these do not a life make. Entrepreneurs turn data into the blood, vessels, muscles, and heartbeat of a company. The best of the lot can look at columns of numbers – thousands – and select the one or two that are aberrant. Seen through the right lens, new worlds appear … and the difference between success and failure. Without creative application numbers are symbols on a screen signifying nothing.
Entrepreneurs have visual acuity, both high and low. High – the big picture, a perspective from 35,000 feet. Low refers to the unit economics – the single customer. If the unit economics don’t pencil out, no amount of scaling will a business make. After a talk with an adoring crowd, the 16th President of the United States was asked ‘Mr. Lincoln, why such a long speech?’ ‘Because I didn’t have the time to write a short one’ came the rejoinder. Entrepreneurs appreciate the elegance of concision and it’s power in communication. The best can put both the high and the low on the back of a business card. An entire business vision and unit economics in little more than a bumper sticker; a sound bite. Catch-phrases are repeated; speeches are read.
Bobby Fischer, in his time the greatest chess player on the planet, was famous for playing two dozen games at once, processing billions of options in nanoseconds. His game was bold, inventive, and defied conventional wisdom. But Fischer was no entrepreneur. Fischer could astonish, inspire… but he could not lead. And this is yet another quality of the gene, leadership. You see, the entrepreneur’s belief system is infectious. It is enveloping and passionate, and the best of them evangelize with the conviction and erudition of a Churchill, a Kennedy, a King. They dazzle; they mesmerize; intellectual shock and awe. They can flip the stubbornest of minds, the most jaundiced of opiners, into a legion of followers.
If you trawl for advice about the most important thing you’ll find plenty – too much actually – as though there were thousands of most important things, which is someplace between a paradox and a contradiction. But for my money, it comes down to this: the entrepreneurs’ gene.