How Do You Stay Entrepreneurial?

Posted by: Ira Sager on June 09

Our readers have let us know that “staying entrepreneurial and taking risks in an era of uncertainty” is one of their biggest workplace challenges. What do you think? How do you continue to innovate when the economy is in a recession? Share your experiences here.

Reader Comments

Bill Catlette

July 1, 2008 03:09 PM

Truth be known, operating in a difficult economy gives everyone a better appreciation for what it's like to be an entrepreneur. The wind is chronically in your face, and it seems there's never enough time, capital, or runway to draw an assured breath. You're scared, but you keep going. Maybe it’s because we’re too Committed or just too hard headed to give up.

Whether in a start-up or a high-performance team deep inside a larger institution, entrepreneurial behavior involves the relentless and passionate pursuit of an endeavor in which one has a vested interest. By definition, this behavior is contingent upon Focus, Passion, and Trust.

Focus: In the words of former NFL head coach, Jimmy Johnson, "confused players are not very aggressive." Even more so in difficult economic times, it is imperative that leaders at every level make darned sure that all hands on deck understand, really understand where the ship is headed, why it’s going there, and what that means. Despite having more communications modes, gear, and doodads at our disposal than ever, we probably do a poorer job of communicating (as in making meaning) regarding this stuff than at any time in history. As a quick litmus test for your own organization, ask the next ten staffers you bump into to jot down a list of the organization’s three (3) highest priorities. If they’re all the same, call me. I’d love to hear more about how you do what you do. If not, get busy.

Passion: Operating in the incredibly difficult, commoditized air transport business, Southwest Airlines flies the same planes to the same places, serving the same stale peanuts as its competitors. (Actually, some of their competitors have recently decided that eliminating the peanuts will be the ‘secret sauce’ to achieving prosperity.) For better than thirty years, Southwest has beaten the competition senseless not so much with planes or routes, but by hiring people who are capable of, and inclined to be a bit more passionate about what they do. In short, Southwest recognizes that there are more folks who have the talent to fly and fix their planes than those who, by virtue of pace, preference, and values fit their merry band. Unlike the competition, they’ve figured out that it should be unlawful to lock customers up in an aluminum tube for long periods with cranky employees. In other words, talent is important, but so is attitude.

As leaders, we need to realize that passion is not a static condition that can be ignored or taken for granted. We must cherish it, invest in it, see that it is well directed, and above all else, set the example to be worthy of its expenditure in our workplace.

Trust: At the end of the day, trust is the central lubricant that allows the entrepreneurial juices to flow – trust in one’s self, your ideas, the people around you, and in your support systems. Sadly, due to the ongoing reinvention of the ‘deal’ in the workplace, trust is in as great a demand and low supply as well, uh… oil. The pressures of an eroding economy make this even more the case.

If you’re truly worried about keeping alive the entrepreneurial instincts in your organization, this would be a great place to start. Consistent with the premise that people would rather “see a sermon than hear one”, turn off the PR machine, put the lawyers back in their sound proof offices, and begin taking visible steps to demonstrate that you personally, and your organization can be trusted to do what you say you’re going to do. Make it abundantly clear that you’re not going to stop at doing what’s legal, but what is right. In similar fashion, be strident and unapologetic in demanding that those with whom you work and partner are similarly convicted.

I can't promise you that doing these things will convert your organization to a bunch of fire-breathing entrepreneurs, but it's pretty safe to say you'll never get there without them. Good luck and Godspeed!

Bill Catlette
co-author, Contented Cows MOOve Faster
bill@contentedcows.com

Richard Clark, president and CEO of APTARE

June 27, 2008 08:33 PM

A couple of weeks ago, I was shaking hands with the CEO of one of our global strategic partners and he asked me, “Rick, how did you start your company without venture capital funding … how did you do it?” It’s a question that I actually get asked often, especially as a founder of a Silicon Valley-based technology company. Venture capital and venture funding are synonymous with innovation in the Valley, but there are a few like us who’ve done it on our own without the help of Sand Hill Road. So I’ve actually been reflecting of late on this topic of how we organically grew our data management software company from its inception 15 years ago.

We’re in a day and age in which every three to four years the markets take a big upturn and then a downturn – with the economy impacted by factors such as the war, the price of oil, the subprime mortgage crisis, interest rates, election years or the like. There are several key things we did and decisions that we made that have allowed us to ride out those economic waves and ultimately grow our business to the successful company it is today.

Tip No. 1: Never Lose Sight of Your Core Competency

I believe that most successful entrepreneurs don’t take risks per se – they seize opportunities. At the time I founded the company in 1993, we didn’t have a window into the market drivers that were going to fuel our success. We’re a data storage management company, but we didn’t start out that way – we’ve definitely evolved but have never lost sight of what we did best, which in our case was software.

At the company’s start, the Internet and Web 2.0 were but a glimmer on the computer screen, the “deluge” of data was just a trickle compared to the flood it is today, and Sarbanes-Oxley was nine years from its birth. Today, those factors have all contributed to a “perfect storm” of market drivers that has led to our large customer base and doubled revenues over the years.

Our core competency was in software and we just kept building off of that. Along came Web 2.0 and we thought, “How can we capitalize on this great collaborative technology?” And then we realized that the enterprise storage world was yearning for a new approach. I think it was to our advantage – because we entered the storage world with no preconceived notions and that allowed us to really think outside of the box. If we had started out in the storage world, and then discovered this thing called “the Web,” and then figured out how to write software, there’s no way we could have developed what we have today.

Tip No. 2: Customer Relationships 2.0: You Don’t Have to Really “Shake on It” in Person

As a small organization within tough economic conditions, you have to look at creative ways to run a business that helps accomplish your goals within a reasonable budget. With rising gas prices and skyrocketing airfares, entrepreneurs need to make selective choices on where, when and how they travel for business.

Most people are shocked to learn this, but for some of the largest deals we’ve ever closed, we’ve never met the customer face to face. It may sound unusual, but I’ve only met a small percentage of our customers in person. Ten years ago, if we wanted to give a product demonstration to a large corporation, we had to go to 10 different offices and do 10 different presentations because there were 10 different groups we had to present to. Using collaborative, virtual software packages, we can now do one presentation and bring everyone together. The majority of what we do is through Web conferencing. Real handshakes have been replaced with virtual ones and, quite honestly, they’re just as effective. You can then take the capital costs of travel and gas as well as extra time lost due to transit and pour that into what’s core to your business, allowing you to scale the business.

The Internet has truly redefined what it means to be a global company, and it is certainly fascinating to look at the change it has made in the whole culture of selling to customers. Web conferencing has allowed us to get in front of the customer virtually and present ourselves, our tools and our technologies; do live presentations, product demonstrations and training; and quickly analyze and solve customers’ issues. We never had the traditional sales model, but we had specialized teams that would be in their home offices and sell.

Tip No. 3: “The Customer Is Always Right” Still Rings True

Some companies are starting to question the old adage “The customer is always right,” but we don’t. We still believe in letting our customers drive our priorities. You’ll always be successful too if you’re delivering products that customers actually need – that become a “must-have” on their lists of purchases. The best way to figure this out is to ask them what they need. We have had intimate customer conversations to figure out customers’ major pain points and have then tailored our solution to fit those requirements.

I would say that our customers are absolutely a critical component to our company’s innovation process. The solutions that we develop that are implemented in Fortune 500 companies in the areas of healthcare, energy, education and finance start with that one discussion about what we can do to help them solve their pain points. And, I would add that it allows us to focus our priorities so that we don’t spend cycles on extraneous stuff that wastes time, money and energy.

Tip No. 4: Create a DNA of Trust and Integrity Within Your Organization

Establish the DNA of your company and then hire people that fit into that DNA. It’s critical to find the right team of people that fit within the culture. At the end of the day, the company DNA needs to flow through the entire organization. I always say, computers don’t write the software that we are developing, people do.

We really look to keep that core DNA alive and well within our company. We have an advisory board that we meet with regularly to talk through our goals, and we meet with other entrepreneurs from other companies as well to feed off their ideas.

Because we are a small business, we cannot afford to lose time, energy or capital on hiring and re-hiring. We are selective about making sure we have the right person for the right job. It may be the most unlikely of candidates. We had a graphical artist – someone far removed from enterprise software technology – develop our software user interface, and it was one of the best decisions we ever made. What separated him from other candidates was how passionate he was – and when you love your job, the bigger organization benefits as well.

Chris

June 17, 2008 09:55 PM

Ira - This is precisely the problem with Corporate America behemoths. In economic challenging times like these, their focus turns to cutting costs, so they eliminate programs, R&D plans, benefits and perks, and ultimately people. My personal experience revealed that large organizations are not very creative or nimble to begin with, so when the tough times roll in, senior management rejects anything that is new, innovative or risky. THIS, my friend, is one of the reasons why these organizations are so painfully slow to transform ideas into profitable products/services. Rather than lay off bright minds that challenge the status quo and push the envelope, perhaps it's the worn, narrow-minded senior management that needs to be ejected. In any event, I'm so very grateful I'm no longer in such an environment. Hundreds of thousands of layoffs later, my former employer is STILL floundering.

My suggestion is that you find another outlet (a new business of your own perhaps?) where you can focus your creative energy. There are so many opportunities out there. Stay optimistic!

Jody Mayo

June 17, 2008 09:47 AM

The most difficult task in submitting my comment was where to post? Bad economy? Work-life balance or lack thereof? Wicked and talentless bosses? Chained to Blackberry? Trading time and family for money?" Guilty. All of the above.

Sweat equity and years of sacrifice of my time with family seemed hardly a good trade when I ultimately was "down-sized" twice. There was no recapturing lost time with my only child. No going back to be more present during formative years when social pressures for alcohol and drug use is pervasive. Nope, I was giving it up for the man relentlessly chasing someone else's dream placing my own life and dreams on the back burner for the "security" of a corporate job.
Well, the last lay off was a great pay off. I can't go back but I can move forward. I found a home-based business opportunity that allows me to call the shots about my time and income. I Forest Gumped my way into a business that markets personal development products. Who among us could not benefit from a good dose of positive mind set?
Life does not have to be prescribed by someone else. If you have an ax to grind with your JOB, and cannot see the way to the life you want from the life you have, time to take ACTION.
Look in the mirror if you want to know who is standing in your way. That reflection is the answer.
I am happy to share the path I took. Send me an email.


john Di Paola

June 14, 2008 12:02 AM

It is precisely when traditional markets tumble that entrepreneurs come out of the wood work. When the comfort and security of traditional business venues comes under attack by factors in the economy or politics, the survival instincts of the entrepreneur blossom, and they take matters into their own hands to create "the better way." These are the best of times for those who live by the beat of a different drummer to find their niche and solve problems obscure to the vision of the traditionalists.

Javier Ortiz

June 13, 2008 12:35 PM

Staying entrepreneurial and taking risks in an era of uncertainty should not be one of the biggest workplace challenges.

By definition and by nature being entrepreneurial is equivalent to taking risk. Life itself is a continuous era of uncertainty. To entrepreneurs innovation, on a daily basis, is a genetical reaction to life. You either are or are not. You have it or you don't.

With the utmost respect to other opinions I dare to express that what is considered "uncertainty" could be no more than "complacency".

The economy, particularly at the level of small business, is like a submarine, it is made of watertight compartments. The notion that the economy is in "recession" should not be spinned around to scare the diverse watertight compartments. The knowledge of why the economy may be or not in recession, is more important and more akin to entrepreneurship, than any rumor or perception.

For example, the present "recession" being experienced in the US and by reflection in the rest of the world, in my opinion is due to a high dosage of complacency and a higher one of plain outright irresponsability and greed on the part of some of the participants in the financial and housing markets, specifically, the mortgage industry in the US.

As such, it is highly solvable in the short and mid terms once the source of the trouble eliminates itself through its mistakes.

As for the rest of us entrepreneurs, we continue to innovate by genetic reaction when the economy is in recession.

If we don't we cease to be entrepreneurs and become employees.

You either are or are not. You have it or you don't.

Javier Ortiz
jortiz01@elp.rr.com


Ira Sager

June 13, 2008 11:38 AM

Robert,

You make a valid point. But what about people in large organizations who want to be innovative, or entrepreneurial, and find that there's little appetite for such initiative in this economic climate. How do you stay entrepreneurial when your company is more focused on cutting costs?

Robert

June 12, 2008 10:30 PM

I take exception to the statement posed by Ira Sager. Ira has already been defeated by pre-framing the idea of recession as a causative factor regarding being entreprenurial. Real entrepreneurs do not focus on the word recession. They focus on new opportunities, products, marketing and creativity. Never use recession as a reason or excuse to slow down or take the safe road to mediocrity.
Success is driven by the ability to live with high degrees of uncertainity.
If you driven by a high degree of certainity you are not entrepreneurial. The two are mutually exclusive.
A slowing economy is the time to double your entrepreneurial efforts and when the sun shines once again, as it always does, you will be miles ahead of those hiding from that dreaded word recession. Let your competitors hunker down in the caves. To you I say double your efforts.

Thank you for your interest. This blog is no longer active.

 

About

Staying Entrepreneurial contributors

Renowned executive coach Marshall Goldsmith, serial entrepreneur Jeff Bussgang, a partner at Flybridge Capital in Boston, and Dr. Steven Berglas, executive coach, management consultant, and expert on "the stress of success," share their tips for staying entrepreneurial in trying times.

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