Lies an Entrepreneur Told Me
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So here is Lie #4:
You need venture capital. The truth? You don't.
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 exaggeratea 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 MBAin particular, the Harvard sortbecame 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.
I could go on and on describing liesand there are many of thembut 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 analysisnot that that's an altogether bad thing. Because real
entrepreneurs thrive on ambiguity. They understand that they don't know
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 courseor, heaven help you,
take an MBAthen 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
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
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
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