Entrepreneurs Are Predators
Predators are smarter than prey. Hare-brained is an insult; sharp as a fox is a compliment.
I have an evolutionary theory to explain this (full disclosure: except for reading voraciously on the subject, I am totally unqualified to have evolutionary theories). A leopard chasing an impala can make a mistake, lose the quarry, learn from the mistake, and hunt more wisely on another day. If the impala makes a mistake, it becomes the leopard’s lunch. Predators fail often; prey fail only once.
So it would be a waste of energy for prey to have a large analytical brain or to divert any resources into learning while running away. Better just to have long legs, good ears, and a healthy paranoia. Thinking could be fatal. It also doesn’t take a lot of smarts to eat grass.
Predators learn terrain; they can learn the habits of prey they’ve never seen before. They learn where to wait patiently and when to pounce. The play of kittens and cubs is as important to the development of their brains as it is to their muscles and their reflexes. And the play is full of stumbles and pratfalls – learning experiences, in other words.
I’ll bet tyrannosaurus rex was a genius compared to brontosaurus.
If you’re starting a new company, especially a new company that’s going to do something new, you have no idea what you’re getting into. OK, you’re prepared for the long hours, the lack of a steady salary, the need to raise capital; but are you ready for all the mistakes you’re going to make?
There is no way to tell in advance what’ll happen when a new product or service is introduced. Disruptive products are all the rage – and they’re the most fun – but the buffeting of disruption is felt most acutely by the disrupter. You will only succeed as an entrepreneur if you can learn from your mistakes! You’ll have plenty of learning opportunities.
Before you can learn from mistakes, you have to be able to admit that you made them. The culture of large organizations encourages “executing flawlessly” which really means either not taking risks and/or covering up mistakes when they’re made. The culture of the successful entrepreneurial organization is to realize that most decisions will be wrong at least in part, to look for mistakes, to admit them readily, to learn from them, and move on to the next mistake.
The ultimate sin in the entrepreneurial organization is not making a mistake, it’s hiding a mistake. Saying “I was wrong” is the first step towards getting something right. The greatest weakness of the imperial CEO is that no one will tell him that he is wrong. A CEO has to insist on hard work, fast decisions, risk taking, and mistake recognition – especially recognition of the CEO’s own mistakes. A CEO who rewards those who tell her when she’s wrong can quickly correct her mistakes.
A corollary of the thesis that you WILL make mistakes is that you need sufficient funding to allow for mistakes both in direction and timing. Once you can’t afford mistakes, you become prey. Fred Wilson touches on that here in a post about the bleeding edge from a VC’s point of view.
If you don’t learn from your mistakes, you will be someone else’s lunch.
I blogged about AT&T’s “execute flawlessly” mantra here.