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Lies an Entrepreneur Told Me

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So here is Lie #4: You need venture capital. The truth? You don't.

'I've already looked there, but if you do find any, tell you what I'll do ...' Published in the Vancouver Sun, 1959. Kedrosky states that there are 'few dumber things than getting yourself deep into debt for a company. . .' He suggests sensible entrepreneurship instead.I'm going to let you in on a secret: business schools are run wrong. The best thing most business schools could do is take the demographics of their incoming class, and apply those numbers to the population at large. Then ask people to apply to school, but throw all those applicants out of the admissions process. Now go back to your population profile and find people who were otherwise like those applicants, except, of course, that they didn't apply. Admit them. For free if necessary. They are your entrepreneurs, and likely to be wealthy alumni of the future. After all, they're too busy and involved to take two years off for accredited common sense. Those other folks? Bureaucrats.

I exaggerate—a little. But the truth is out there. You don't need an MBA to be a successful entrepreneur. While for a particular species of, ahem, entrepreneur, an MBA—in particular, the Harvard sort—became de rigueur for a spell, that was an unusual moment in time. Because most successful entrepreneurs don't have MBAs. Not only that, many of them (including the billionaire troika of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Larry Ellison— and Andrew Carnegie, for that matter) haven't even completed undergraduate degrees. You can make a credible case that education, at least as currently constructed, gets in the way of being an entrepreneur. It slows you down.

Now, lest I set off a wail from college admissions offices and parents everywhere, I'm not suggesting that you drop out of school and wait for entrepreneurship to pick you up at the next bus stop. It doesn't work that way. Correlation, as they say, is not causation. Just because many entrepreneurs don't have MBAs, or even undergraduate degrees, doesn't mean that their lack of education was the cause of their success. Of course not, no more than the increasing numbers of car washes causes increasing murder rates in large cities (but there is a nice correlation!).

Successful entrepreneurs are in a hurry. They want to chase opportunities before the opportunity stops being an opportunity. And so they do a gut check (not head! not Excel!) and then they follow their muse, without worrying about silly things like accreditation. That is, at its core, what is so wonderful about entrepreneurship and innovation: it is anarchic and blind. It doesn't care who you are, what you eat, or where you come from, so long as your idea can separate customers from their money in volume.

So here is Lie #5: You need a specific education to be an entrepreneur. You don't. And anyone who says differently is likely an admissions officer, or knows one.

Before he went on to create Apple, Steve Jobs, CEO and Co-Founder of Apple Computer, worked at Atari and HP. Steve Jobs on stage during his keynote speech at the JavaOne 2000 Developer Conference in San Francisco.I could go on and on describing lies—and there are many of them—but I think that by now I have scared away the dilettantes, the people who were reading this book in Inc. fashion, looking for Five Easy Steps to be a successful entrepreneur, or Ten Businesses You Must Start Right Now! Here's hoping those people are gone, because now that they are, those of us who are left can have a productive conversation without all the noise.

Those of you who still remaining, all eleven of you, you're real entrepreneurs, real innovators. You know why? Because you won't be put off. You're persistent bastards. You know what you want. And while it's not widely known, the most powerful force in the universe is not gravity, or some esoteric bit of Hawking flotsam. No, the most powerful force in the universe is a person who knows what he or she wants, and will stop at nothing to get it.

Because most people don't know what they want. They may now and then, temporarily, but that is about it. Their convictions are fleeting, evanescent, swept away by time and change. True entrepreneurs and innovators aren't so easily shaken, because they have conviction. They know what they want, and they won't be stopped.

And far from worrying that they don't have all the data, they're happiest when they don't. Because they assume that if they don't, then no one else does, so they can rely on their instincts. You won't catch them noodling endlessly with some massively contingent spreadsheet doing contingency analysis—not that that's an altogether bad thing. Because real entrepreneurs thrive on ambiguity. They understand that they don't know everything.

And not only that, they understand that they will have to make (many!) decisions on imperfect information. They thrive on the idea. Analysis paralysis is for MBAs, not for real entrepreneurs. Because they live by the adage there are no bad decisions, other than no decision at all.

And those people who come up to me at conferences, the people who tell me that they want to be entrepreneurs but don't know how? Here is the truth: anyone who asks how to be an entrepreneur isn't one, by definition. If you think you need to ask someone else's permission, or you need to read a particular book, or take a particular course—or, heaven help you, take an MBA—then you don't have the Right Stuff to be an entrepreneur.

Here is some good news. Canada, by many measures, is wonderfully well prepared to lead the world in innovation and entrepreneurship. Our schools are among the best in the world, we outpace the U.S. in the production of scientists and engineers per capita, we have a world-beating lifestyle, we create companies at a rate comparable to the U.S., and (despite many claims to the contrary) we are in the top 10 globally in terms of venture capital as a percentage of GDP. Those are all good things.

So why isn't this book ten times larger? Why aren't there more Canadian entrepreneurs and innovators to highlight? It isn't the number of broadband connections to the home, nor is it the amount of risk capital in circulation. Instead, it has more to do with failure rate of small businesses.

One answer is that we simply don't have enough successes. While that might sound circular, it isn't, or at least isn't entirely. You need successful companies to breed successful companies. Partly because the role model is useful, but also for more practical reasons. You need the continual sloughing off of employees from these successful companies; they become the foot soldiers for the new revolution. You need the validation that comes from seeing other people succeed.

We saw some of the preceding in the dot-corn euphoria, but people mostly learned the wrong lesson. Instead of learning that anyone can be an entrepreneur, people learned that anyone with a business plan and a line of patter could get venture funding and do an initial public offering. Not the same thing. And what's more, not true. Thankfully, however, those people are (mostly) gone, and so the rest of us can quietly go about our business.

And what is our business? It is filling swamps. Think about it. The business of innovating and being an entrepreneur is one of feeling your way along through uncertain terrain, through murky water containing unknown hazards. This economic swamp cannot be avoided, and with its soft bottom it is difficult to take soundings. What will market growth be? Where will our money come from? Who will buy? Who will sell to us? Where will we find good people? Are Macs really better than Wintel boxes?

To cross the entrepreneurial swamp and be real innovators, we have to answer questions. In other words, we have to fill the swamp. But as any Mafioso will tell you, it takes a lot of dead bodies to fill a swamp. Many companies fail before others succeed. Sometimes the first company succeeds, but not often. But here is the thing. Most entrepreneurs and true innovators don't care. They are not acting out of bizarre magnanimity when they toss themselves into the swamp. They genuinely think they'll float.

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