Monday, May 14, 2012

The Lonely Road

Each year that my wife and I taught Entrepreneurship at the University of St. Thomas our last class was about the ten things I wish I knew when I was 20. One of those always included my wife talking about one of her favorite poems by Robert Frost called "The Road Not Taken." She would talk about her regrets and thoughts about what her life would have been like if she had not taken the path to entrepreneurship and, instead, had stayed on the big corporate road that many of her friends had taken. As I have gone from my youth to middle age (and even a little beyond), I have looked back on my own life with some regrets but also with the notion that I have learned so much that I wouldn’t have had I not taken risks.
I have previously written about how I have failed my way to success and the difficult paths an entrepreneur must take. But I have not yet written about why I admire entrepreneurs more than any business people I know.
The life of an entrepreneur is fraught with stress, setbacks, and, if they are lucky, elation. Unfortunately, we only glorify the success stories—the winners. I find the failures as compelling and clap my hands at their efforts sometimes more than I do the “winners.”
The entrepreneur first must find an idea that is original, compelling, and protectable. This is not easy and very few do this successfully. They are told constantly that “it is too hard,” “anyone can develop that,” “Microsoft, Medtronic, Google are or will be doing that.” They have to find people who share their vision and who are willing to bet financially and emotionally that they are right. Finally, they must convince investors, many of whom have never started or even operated a company, to invest in their idea.
Once they have all these things, they then have to build their product or service and find customers for it. My wife calls the first nine months after release of a software product “the nine months of hell.” I believe this is very appropriate. Everything that can go wrong often does, but it allows the business model to evolve (or Pivot as VCs now like to say). During this time entrepreneurs are judged as “idiots” or “geniuses.” My experience over thirty years is that the best people with the best ideas don’t always succeed if the timing is not right. I call it luck where smarter people call it market timing.
If everything goes right, some day, like Mark Zukerberg of Facebook, they will get to bask in the glory that goes to the winners. However, more often than not, they will fail and feel shame and embarrassment that they failed. Often, they feel like they have failed not only themselves but also their employees and friends.
To me they should feel no shame. The shame should be on the rest of us, who watch them and either clap for their victories or boo their defeats. The entrepreneur is the bravest person I know. They take the lonely road but in my mind the best. As President Theodore Roosevelt said in his famous “Man in the Arena” speech in 1910…
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

A Post by Frank Vargas, Guest Blogger

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