This is a book for people interested in entrepreneurship.
But that's not specific enough. If you look at the magazine stands, or tune in to CNBC, or visit either your local neighborhood bookstore or your favorite business-related Web site, everybody is interested in entrepreneurship.
So, let me be more specific. This is a book for people who want to start or buy a business and who want to run that business in a way that generates relatively high rewards with relatively low risks. It's a book for people who already own a small business, and want to push that business up to the next level of success. To some extent, it's for those people in the ranks of corporate America who have the entrepreneurial bug, and want to break out and go their own way. And finally, it's a book for people who think they might want to go into business for themselves, and want to know more about the day-to-day reality of working for yourself. Who does it? Is it better than the alternatives?
Although I'll necessarily be presenting some of the basics, my emphasis will tend to be on the things they don't teach in school. My emphasis, too, will be on things with which I've had a lot of personal experience. As a result, certain kinds of topics (e.g., marketing) get more attention than other kinds of topics (e.g., manufacturing). Again, this reflects both my experiences and my biases.
Where did this book come from?
An interesting thing happened to me when (in 1985) I became the subject of a Harvard Business School case study. (That case is reprinted as Appendix 3 in this book.) I started thinking about how I was living life, and doing business. Not that I hadn't been aware of what I was doing in the previous thirty years or so. Yes, I had plans, but they were mostly in my head. (I never had a written business plan. I think they're highly overrated -- except that you usually need one to raise money.) But now, as I talked with smart people about the particular way that I had tried to do business, I found myself forced to be a little more articulate on that subject.
This was reinforced when the Wall Street Journal wrote an article about some of my exploits, which the Journal writer seemed to think were interesting. It was reinforced again each time I saw the Harvard Business School case on my company taught to a group of undergraduate or graduate students.
Pretty soon I found myself wanting to find out more about how other people looked at their business careers. I read books and articles by people who had done interesting things. I sought out certain people at trade shows and conventions. I found good pretexts to call people on the phone and pick their brains about their particular approach to entrepreneurship.
When the Free Press asked me in 1997 to put my ideas into book form, I realized that this was a perfect opportunity to go public with all this snooping. I bought a tape recorder, made a new list of "targets," and asked for the opportunity to talk to a group of entrepreneurs in all kinds of industries. To my surprise, almost every one of them agreed to be interviewed. Most of them were extremely generous with their time, and amazingly candid about their businesses. I also did a formal survey of salespeople, many with years of experience in their respective fields. With their permission, I have used their stories to illustrate themes throughout this book.
Finally, about a year ago, I started getting systematic about my approach to my "guest shots" at colleges and graduate schools. Rather than simply asking for feedback on my teaching, I started asking students to fill out a questionnaire. This survey was designed to help me understand more about how young people look at business in general, and entrepreneurship in particular. The results have been revealing; and they, too, are built into the chapters that follow.
In setting out to write this book, I resolved to make it as practical as possible. I have nothing against theoretical approaches to business problems. Good theories eventually lead to good business practices. But most of the time, entrepreneurs have to act, quickly, taking advantage of opportunities that may be short-lived. I believe in the power of intuitive thinking. If you understand a problem intuitively, you usually can get to the right answer without ever solving that problem intellectually.
Let me emphasize the "low risk" part of this book's title. I'm nothing less than a missionary on this subject. I believe that in most business situations, risk can be managed. Not eliminated -- nothing in life is certain -- but managed in ways that will definitely increase your odds for success.
Contrary to popular belief, entrepreneurs don't like risk. They don't get up in the morning and go looking for it. In fact, they do what they can to anticipate it, minimize it, offset it, circumscribe it -- pick your favorite appropriate verb. This doesn't mean that you don't take risks, or that you don't make mistakes. You'd better! (The fear of mistakes is one virus that is deadly to creativity.) But it means that you take risks that you've built some firewalls around.
Low risk with high reward: Does this sound like a pipe dream? Well, I think I can persuade you it's not. As a forty-year veteran of the entrepreneurial trenches, I think I have a set of skills, ideas, and experiences that add up to low-risk, high-reward (LRHR) entrepreneurship. They're neither hard to learn, nor hard to use once you've learned them. The best evidence for that is me.
But let's figure out first who you are. There are several key audiences I'm writing for in this book. If you're in one of these audiences, then keep reading. If you're not, then wrap this book up as handsomely as you can, write a nice card, and give it to that friend of yours who's always making noises about how he or she is definitely going to get into business someday.
Who am I writing for?
The first audience is people who are already decision makers in their own businesses, and are looking for ways to make those businesses work smarter. That's a key message in this book: Working smart can be even more important than working hard.
A second audience is those people who currently work for large companies, but would like to find a way to get out off the 9-to-5, forty-years-and-a-pension treadmill. Have you always felt a little bit out of place in that big, slow-moving, intensely political company? Do you suspect you may be laid off, despite the fact that you've done a great job for your company? Are you reaching the nasty conclusion that there are no more promotions coming your way because you're not political enough, or won't go along with questionable practices, or don't have the right color skin, or are of the "wrong" gender, or didn't go to the right school?
Are you under appreciated? Underpaid? Have you ever wondered if you could have more fun while making a living?
A third audience is closely related to the second. I call these people the "closet entrepreneurs." They can be found in many places -- law firms, medical offices, and other professional settings, as well as business settings. These people aren't necessarily unhappy where they are, but for one reason or another, they yearn to be their own boss. In some cases, they want to prove something to themselves. In other cases, they are convinced they could make more money. By and large, they lack the know-how or the self-confidence to proceed -- or even openly acknowledge their dream.
A fourth audience is young people who are currently in school -- high school, college, or graduate school. Some of you may have had little or no exposure to business and can only wonder what it's all about. Others of you may have several years of work experience behind you, may have studied at a leading business school, and may even have investigated what it takes to start your own company.
Maybe you're even farther down this road. Maybe you've already got an absolutely great idea for a business, you've got access to some start-up capital, and you're ready to work your tail off. Be advised, however, that most successful businesses don't grow out of a "great idea." Most grow out of a more or less mundane idea -- but one that is made or marketed a little bit better than all the competing ideas out there. Don't wait for lightning to strike!
Also be advised that the act of creating a business doesn't make you an entrepreneur. We'll return to this idea in the next section, when I define entrepreneurship.
Every year, I meet and speak with hundreds of students, ranging from undergraduates to MBAs-in-training to participants in executive education programs. My perspective is not an academic one, though. In fact, I think some of my professor hosts see me as some sort of exotic species, brought in to illustrate the fact that entrepreneurship can come in many packages. I'm glad to help make that point, since I think it's true.
A final audience for this book are the future leaders of entrepreneurial businesses. Maybe you're formally or informally in a line of succession at a good and growing company. Or maybe you're a prospective heir to a family business. In either case, you're in a special situation. You may well be slotted to take over someday, but take it from me: You'll still have to earn your stripes. You'll have to demonstrate to those around you that you're the right person for the job. The best way to do this is to chart an effective path for the company, and then implement that plan effectively. Many of the ideas in this book should serve you well in those difficult tasks.
This is the easiest section of the book for me to write, because I can borrow it almost entirely from Howard Stevenson, who largely invented the Entrepreneurship faculty group at the Harvard Business School (and was kind enough to write a foreword for this book).
Professor Stevenson, himself a very successful entrepreneur, has spent almost two decades trying to make a respectable academic field out of a subject that academicians used to avoid like the plague. Before Howard and a few colleagues at other schools tackled the subject, entrepreneurship was not something that a self-respecting scholar would take on. It was barely "teachable," let alone "researchable." Yes, there were certainly lots of people out there who were starting and growing a wide variety of businesses; and yes, colleges showed a lot of interest in those guys (and more recently, gals) when it came time for fund-raising. But no one could define entrepreneurship in a way that was useful for knowledge building.
It was not so long ago that entrepreneurs were described in such unflattering terms as: shiftless, unfocused, shady, money-hungry, misfits, sharks, quick-buck artists, unreliable, shoot-from-the-hip operators, and so on. The focus was all on the personality and character of the individual -- and in my opinion, badly misinformed.
What Howard did was to define a way of thinking, rather than a personality type. He said that entrepreneurship is a set of behaviors. He distinguished entrepreneurs (who are opportunity-driven) from managers (who are resource-driven). The entrepreneur tends to use other people's resources to pursue opportunities that would otherwise stay out of reach. The manager, starting from a corporate resource base, focuses on trying to find ways to protect corporate assets, and to meet profit, sales, return on investment, or other goals imposed from above, or by the stock market.
Howard didn't say one was good and one was bad -- just that they were different in fundamental ways. I agree.
A key feature of Howard's definition is that it is a pretty wide open, even welcoming idea. In other words, you don't have to be born with certain personality traits to succeed as an entrepreneur. You just have to act in certain ways. Or, if you can't act that way yourself -- for example, if you're not likely to be a great salesperson -- you have to be good at understanding and supporting that function. If you had to possess a certain gene sequence to be an entrepreneur, there'd be no reason to go to business school or to read this book. You'd either have it or you wouldn't.
But it doesn't work that way. So, let me adopt Howard's definition of entrepreneurship, with a few little amendments of my own. I think that entrepreneurship is the recognition and pursuit of opportunity without regard to the resources you currently control, with confidence that you can succeed, with the flexibility to change course as necessary, and with the will to rebound from setbacks.
Throughout this book, I'll argue that entrepreneurship is all about flexibility. Flexibility is one asset that a small company almost always has more of than a large company. So flexibility and opportunism are key. And flexibility is important on the individual, as well as the corporate, level. Entrepreneurship is about competitive people who can withstand adversity, and recover from -- and learn from -- failure, on their way to success.
What's in this book?
So, what's in this book? I've divided my ideas into ten chapters and four appendices. All of them consider various aspects of starting and growing a business. All of them also sound the general theme of managing and minimizing risk, while maximizing profit.
Chapter 1 contains a summary of the skills and attributes that I think are important for the individual entrepreneur to develop. These include creativity, flexibility, salesmanship, passion, a hunger for knowledge, the ability to build trust, integrity, and so on.
So far in this introduction, I've stressed flexibility, even including it in my definition of entrepreneurship. Now I'm going to make the point that there are some things -- like integrity -- where flexibility works against the entrepreneur. Don't give people out there the idea that you'll give up your personal integrity just to close a deal. Don't compromise core values!
This is as good a place as any to make a point that maybe I should have made earlier. My goal in all of this is to give you new things to think about, or maybe new ways of thinking about things you're already involved in. I certainly don't think that my way is the only way of doing things. (Indeed, "my way" of doing things has changed over the years, and I hope it will keep changing.) That's one reason why I've tried to pick the brains of so many smart people out there, ranging from students to experienced entrepreneurs and salespeople.
Chapter 2 puts a spotlight on one more skill set that's absolutely vital to the LRHR entrepreneur: the ability to understand and use numbers. I call this numeracy: the numbers equivalent of literacy. Chapter 3 focuses specifically on risk: how to spot it, manage it, and -- in as many cases as possible -- reduce it. Chapter 4 is a short chapter focused on a big topic: the idea. If businesses are founded on ideas, where do ideas come from?
The next chapter, chapter 5, is about getting the company started, a task that seems to frustrate many would-be entrepreneurs. How do you start? Where does the money come from? How do you find and grow the right people? How do you keep track of the numbers? Above all, how do you manage risk -- avoiding it, reducing it, sharing it, staging it, eliminating it, accepting it, and evaluating it against potential rewards?
Chapter 6 is about building your business. How big? That depends in part on what you want. I'll confess in advance that I'm not the world's best authority on growing a large company. I never wanted to grow one of those. But I have included lots of good ideas from people who have created successful enterprises, and I hope this will give you at least an introductory road map to growing that Really Big Company.
Products are the focus of chapter 7. I may not love huge companies, but I do love products. I love developing them, introducing them, defending them against other people's knockoffs, knocking off my products before somebody else does, pulling the plug on them, and so on. Believe me: There are few, if any, processes in business that will give you more of a kick than getting an idea for a product, making that product come to life, and then seeing it on retail counters across the country -- or in some cases, around the world.
My own experience has been in consumer goods, games, and novelties, beginning with personalized pencils and continuing through games that require either mental or physical dexterity, or both. But I've tried hard to complement my own experiences with those of people in other sectors, so -- in addition to ideas based on selling magic kits and Rubik's Cubes -- you'll learn lessons derived from more typical products.
Chapter 8 is about getting the order. You're not in business until you get an order. This is the process of "selling in" to businesses, or to some sort of distribution chain. For most of my own business career, this has meant selling into a retailer network, but these same ideas apply when you're selling, either to businesses or direct to the consumer.
But selling, as we'll see in later chapters, is getting harder. With the continuing and accelerating consolidation of the retail sector -- companies going out of business or gobbling each other up -- the power of the remaining retailers has increased to such an extent that there is a real imbalance of power in the market today. (The retailer -- the buyer -- holds a lot more cards than the seller.) They often use this leverage mercilessly.
Some people say that the Internet will be the death of retail as traditionally practiced. If and when this happens, my guess is that not everyone will be sad. Meanwhile, we entrepreneurs have to know how to mitigate the power of the retailers. We need to get orders at a profit, and minimize the risks that dealing with retailers pose. We need to know how to get in to see these characters, how to sell to them, how to use manufacturers' reps, how to license products, how to use advertising and public relations and other marketing gambits, and so on, and so on.
Or even smarter: Let's figure out some way to do an end run around the traditional retailer. Can we go direct to the consumer? Can we sell to the direct response industry, which in turn will sell to the consumer without all the baggage that comes with a store?
I don't mean to imply that all retailers are dangerous, of course. There are many niche retailers, with whom it pays off to build long-term relationships. I am raising the caution flag, however, when it comes to dealing with the largest and most powerful retailers. They've got the leverage; you probably don't.
Next comes a chapter (chapter 9) about the reorder. I'm making an explicit distinction between your first wave of orders and your second. You can't get into business without your initial order; you can't stay in business without that all-important reorder. This is "selling through," which is the necessary complement to selling in. Again, I look at advertising, PR, and marketing. I also look at building an appropriate infrastructure, building relationships, building trust across a spectrum of institutions, dealing with the problems (and opportunities) of knockoffs, and so on.
Finally, in chapter 10, you'll find lots of ideas about you and your company, and about success and failure. (Most important: you get to define them both.) I provide a kind of running counterpoint between individual and corporate lessons. What happens to your company when it succeeds? (What happens to you?) What happens to your company when it fails? (What happens to you?) Should you go public? If so, when and how? If you build a corporate juggernaut, will you be happy catering to analysts and stockholders?
If not, will you resign? Then what will you do? My personal vision of purgatory is endless cocktails on the beautiful patio alongside the tenth fairway under an eternally blue sky, with tanned folks in pastel shorts playing through, complaining about the dog-leg on Nine. Let me keep working, and learning, please!
To me, money and the trappings of power are only moderately important. Having enough money means that my car will start on cold mornings, that my shoes won't hurt my feet, that I don't have to check any particular bottom line on any given day of the week (stock listings, the price of gold, or whatever). Having enough money means that I'm able -- within reason -- to respond to my kids' pleeezes for the cash to buy tickets for some upcoming totally awesome event.
Having power is basically an extension of having money. When the last flight out gets canceled, I don't have to sleep in the airport lounge. When I call somebody powerful, they (may) call me back.
To me, what is important in life are things like trust, balance, satisfaction, family, love, happiness, self-esteem, and helping others. What's great about entrepreneurship is that, done right, it's been an effective way for me to get to some of those things that are important. And getting to some of those things -- for example, trust -- has in turn made being a good entrepreneur easier.
I think I've been lucky in life, and lots of people have been very generous to me. I want to repay those debts. This inclination -- and probably the strange process of getting older -- has led me into teaching. Increasingly, being a good teacher is important to me. I enjoy my sessions as a diamond in the rough at business schools. I've enjoyed sharing what I've learned with my interview subjects, almost as much as I've enjoyed learning from them. I've enjoyed writing this book, although it's a hell of a lot easier to start a company than to write a book.
When I read a book, I try to take away at least one actionable idea from it. Now I'm the author, and of course, I want to excel at being an author. So I hope that those of you who are already in business can take away at least two actionable ideas that will help make your business stronger. Or maybe even more than two.
And if I can persuade even a few young people to engage in low-risk, high-reward entrepreneurship -- bright young people who might otherwise have gone into some less happy calling -- I will have done something worthwhile.