Oct 272014

Dr. Earl R. Smith II

Every once in a while I come across a book or an article which purports to explain why start-ups fail and to advise entrepreneurs on how to avoid those pitfalls. As a successful recidivist entrepreneur, I can tell you that almost all of the writings are not only wrong but, if you take them too seriously, are potentially corrosive to your chances of ever successfully starting a business.

Most of the authors’ focus in these works seems to fall into five categories – all of which are easily recognizable and none of which should matter much to founders. But the problem is that they do more than occasionally get taken seriously. I have seen these pontifications do serious damage to the potential of start-ups. It’s time to inject some sanity into the process. In this part I will discuss the ‘curse of the enlightened service providers’. The next four installments will be about the ‘list makers’, the ‘marketeers’, the ‘academics’ and the ‘financiers’. The final section will outline an alternative to these distractions – a way that entrepreneurs can navigate the shallows of the start-up experience and move quickly into the deeper and far more profitable waters of ‘the big time’.

The first type of book or article is written by one or another type of service provider. Lawyers and accountants are major contributors. Consultants get into the game with unnerving frequency. Most of what they produce is heavily influenced by the particular service that they supply or the ‘system’ that they have come to adopt as their mantra. They almost always adopt the posture of the professor – a teacher of the ‘inexperienced’ and ‘inept’. These are the pretentious – you know, the ‘they that can’t do teach’ crowd – and their drivel is very corrosive for founders who take it seriously.

Almost all of these books and articles are written by individuals who have never successfully launched a business – other than, of course, within the narrow service-provider space which they occupy. The ones that I know who have tried to start their own businesses have almost always failed. I have seen lawyers who have written extensively about successfully starting a business – popular speakers and authors – accountants – venture capitalists – investment advisors –consultants – fail miserably when they attempted to start a business. And what is more, they fail most often because they either ignore or dismiss one or more of the fundamental rules determining success in business – because they ignore even their own advise – in other words, they prove to be rank amateurs at what they have been putting themselves forward as experts on.

Their writings tend to have a clinical, passionless air about them – as if the successful launch of a start-up has more to do with their overly logical, anti-humanist view of the world than the real challenges that a group of founders face when they try to create something out of mostly nothing. During one engagement I worked with a founder who had adopted a retired accountant as her ‘mentor’. The bean counter had things well organizes – so much so that lots of the founder’s time and attention was going to maintaining a record system that did nothing but keep track of red ink. The really insidious result of this particular situation was that the so called ‘mentor’ had introduced the founder to a vision of being an entrepreneur that was radically anti-entrepreneurial and anti-humanist. It took her over a year to recover from that disease.

There is one major characteristic of writings by service providers that needs highlighting. The author’s time horizon is almost always relatively short term and the process of successfully starting a business is broken down into a series of neat little boxes. This should come as no surprise since these are individuals who make their living by selling their time – often minutes at a time. Their one-size-fits-all mentality overrides the particulars of a given situation – as purveyors of their particular panacea they preach a gospel of commoditization which reduces the challenges of starting a business neatly to the strictures of their own particular prejudices about the world.

As I am reading these books, I tend to hear the folk singer Peter Seeger in the background:

Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes
Little boxes
Little boxes all the same
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same

Or, wait a minute, maybe its Pink Floyd singing

Teacher, leave those kids alone.
Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone!
All in all it’s just another brick in the wall.
All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.

It is important to be careful who you choose as your mentors – and the criteria that you use in the choosing are critical to choosing wisely. The tracks that a potential mentor has left in the snow – those things that they have actually accomplished – after you strip away the books and articles – speeches and panel participation – networking prowess – are what is important. Beware of service providers in sheep’s clothing – they will lead you astray every time. An intellectualized life is no substitute for a life – and they that teach also should be able to do.

© Dr. Earl R. Smith II



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