Nov 162014

Dr. Earl R. Smith II

It is a decision that seems to get made all by itself. Before you know it, you are the founder of a start-up. Then the challenges begin to appear and the real implications of your decision start to sink in.


I recently had two conversations with decidedly different people who had the same perspective on business – most notably, their businesses. When something like that occurs, I tend to stop – light up a good cigar – and settle down for a think. Most often, the results of the effort are at least therapeutic – and sometimes enlightening. Well this time the results were somewhere in the middle – sorry to you folks who were anticipating enlightenment!

Both individuals were waxing philosophical about their business and career goals. Both were about to launch into entrepreneurial efforts. One was about to found a new business while the other was running one in an early start-up phase. For what it is worth, here is a snapshot of the conversations.

“I want to run my own shop – be my own boss – be in command of my own destiny. I don’t want to report to anybody – be beholden to anybody – or controlled by anybody. As captain of my own ship, I can make the decisions – take the actions – and suffer the consequences without asking permission.”

Midget Hitlers – Naive Napoleons – Minor Machiavellis: Whenever I hear something like this, I shake my head and sigh – mostly metaphorically, of course – I try to avoid awakening the assiduously asleep whenever possible. There is no good reason to disturb the self-worshiping or misapprehending that goes into such an antisocial and repressed worldview. I say ‘good reason’ based on lots of personal experience. In earlier days, I might have donned my armor, mounted the sturdy Rocinante and set off a-tilting at windmills. However, those were younger days when I was too full of myself and confident that I could face any challenge successfully. Now, after building six businesses and helping a couple of dozen others build theirs I have come to understand that there are some swamps that are best left undrained.

Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.
Ancient proverb

Madness is, of course, a relative matter and one of interpretation – thereby doubly subjective. However, delusion is continually self-inflicted. Self-deluded people form the gods that then turn and destroy themselves – a kind of one man circular firing squad.

Let’s get to the nub of the matter. The very idea behind the comments posited by my two errant entrepreneurs – the very concepts that they rest on – are both a delusion and a snare. Like Plato’s allegory of the cave, an idealized reality that, although completely imaginary, leads to tragic misunderstandings and broken dreams – wasted lives and efforts.

No one runs their own shop – no one is their own boss – no one is control of their own destiny. Business is a collaborative team sport – the team the works most closely and effectively together regularly buries the lone riders and dysfunctional gaggles.

Ok – you got me – there is an exception if you are operating your own lemonade stand on an uninhabited island. However, you do rely on the trees for lemons and the spring for water. Ahhh well!

The common characteristic of my two ‘declarers of their own independence’ was that they were both deeply anti-social. Their view of the world was essentially egocentric – ‘me centered’ – they were absolutely determined to keep people at a distance. Both seemed to be suffering from a repressed adolescent fantasy – a kind of Never-Never Land imagining of the human race and their place in it. Of course, you can probably guess who was filling the role of Peter Pan in their fantasies. Americans seem particularly susceptible to this ‘perpetual youth until perpetual death’ fantasy.

The reason that I no longer spend much time working with these Peter Pans is that I have lost my passion for making kamikaze raids on vacant lots. Business is a team sport that requires all team members to have a strong inclination to collaborate, communicate, learn, teach, evolve and contribute. Over the years, I have helped numerous entrepreneurs build their businesses. The good ones – the successes – have come when the understanding of the ‘business of business’ is not an issue – when there is a maturity that has vanquished adolescent fantasies.

The fading memory of the tech bubble bust has diminished the appreciation of how damaging and costly these adolescent attitudes are. Today they are mostly limited to small business and start-ups that will probably go nowhere. However, there were days when Midget Hitlers, Naive Napoleons and Minor Machiavellis strode the stage – sucking up financial resources and declaring that they were going to change the world as we know it – denigrating the weakness and stupidity of their clients and potential clients (all of whom were running larger and much more successful businesses by the way) and exuding a sense of manifest destiny. Mercifully, most of these megalomaniacs are now productively employed in the fast food service industry. The path of destruction that they left – the broken lives and misdirected careers – are still with us. The hugely wasteful loss of capital still echoes.

The truth of the matter is simple to state – and just as difficult to deploy. Before you get into business in an entrepreneurial role, try to find a non-instrumental reason that people are co-habiting this world with you. Slay your own daemons before you allow them to savage the people you attempt to work lead. In other words, grow up Peter.

© Dr. Earl R. Smith II

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