I co-founded this business almost 13 years ago. I started out with partners, but after a series of unexpected setbacks, found myself two years later, as the sole owner and leader of what we had started. After a career spent working in major corporations, and a self-identity as a corporate animal, it was something of a shock to my system to find myself as a business leader. For this reason, I sometimes refer to myself as the “accidental entrepreneur”.
At first I found it a heavy burden to bear. I felt like a pilgrim in a foreign country, trying to find my way. But guides appeared, especially a life-changing corporate coach, who showed me the guideposts to business leadership. More than anything, I was scared to death that I would fail, and that the members of the company and their families, as well as my own family, all of whom were depending on me — would pay the price if I lost my way.
In those early days, I did not espouse any grand philosophies of business leadership. I did not spout off about entrepreneurship and community. Lowlier ambitions, like making payroll, were on my mind.
Looking back today, while I am still uncomfortable inhabiting the word “entrepreneur”, I know that I love it, could not bear to do or be anything else, and am deeply sensible to the great privilege that has been afforded me by these opportunities. As I am regularly asked to describe my thinking on entrepreneurship, I am writing this short piece to explain what has become clear to me over the years that have followed.
Entrepreneurship is a privilege
“Entrepreneurship is the privilege of being able to create community as a place to live your beliefs.”
There, in a nutshell, are my views about entrepreneurship. It sounds a bit fruity doesn’t it? Not quite the image of a brilliant inventor, hair standing on end, bringing a product to market and transforming lives? My philosophy of entrepreneurship is a lot less edgy. It’s not about what. It’s not about who. It’s not about how. It’s about the way we do business, as far as I’m concerned.
So let’s unpack my earlier statement a little.
First of all, that entrepreneurship is a privilege. I say this because I believe it. I feel enormously privileged, actually honored, to lead a company of intelligent, energetic, hardworking people, who choose to spend a little time, or a lot, “co-laboring” or “collaborating” with one another to serve our clients, and one another. I’m mindful that more people are former employees than current employees. It is a great privilege to have helped form these young men and women (and not so young men and women) in their careers, and for this diaspora of former employees to be taking with them into their subsequent careers what they have learned about my beliefs and our company values — about the way we do business. More so, it is a privilege to have a client list of great companies that trust us to partner with them in solving their problems. Many have been with us for years, and some are more recent relationships. All of them dignify us by trusting us to serve them.
The privilege of being an American entrepreneur
It also is a huge privilege to be an entrepreneur in the USA.
I am an immigrant to this great country, and recently crossed a milestone: I have now lived more of my life outside of my country of origin, Britain, than in it — mainly in the USA. I became an American citizen about 15 years ago.
Much as we might be tempted to complain about the business environment in our country, it is still an encouraging place to start a business. All you really need to start a business in America is an idea, a customer, and some money. It really is that simple. And while entrepreneurship is alive in Britain, in some many places in the world, it is not so easy to start a business – either due to bureaucracy, economic stagnation, or an absence of the due process of law.
But the privilege of being an American entrepreneur goes much further than that. As I have not only survived over the years, but prospered, the default reaction of Americans to me has been: “That’s great,” “Good for you,” “We are happy for you,” or some version thereof. That would most certainly not be the reaction to a successful immigrant in any of the other countries I have lived or visited. This is, in my experience, a peculiarly American characteristic: to applaud the success of a foreigner. It’s warm, it’s heartening, and it’s surprising. So for these reasons, it is a privilege to be an entrepreneur in the USA.
The privilege of creating community
That’s the privilege part. What about being able to create community?
Again, the word “community” has somewhat fruity overtones – images of working utopia, etc. But that is what a business is – it’s a community of people with all of the dynamics, emotional systems, friendships, jealousies, power struggles, successes, and failures of any community. But this is a community that you, as an entrepreneur, have the privilege of creating. You get to decide who joins the club, you have the very onerous duty of occasionally ejecting those who do not belong in the club, you establish the club rules, and you do your best to lead. It does, however, take on an organic life of its own, and may not, if you aren’t careful, be a club or community, that you always enjoy.
If you can stand another metaphor, I liken the role of entrepreneur in creating community to the constant gardener. You plant, you water, you weed. You can go away for a few days and your beautiful garden will be there to greet you, but more than that, it will be overgrown, weedy and disharmonious. Communities require the constant attention of the entrepreneur. In my own case, I take the concept of community further. I regard the company as an extension of my family – not in any kind of patriarchal sense, but simply as an extended family that I care deeply about, as I do about my own family. People are assuredly not commodities. Some are weaker, some are stronger. Some are slower, some are faster. While it is my unwelcome duty to occasionally ask people to leave our community, I am extremely loath to terminate the employment of someone we once felt was a good fit for the company, without fully exploring the options for potential success. After all, they are family.
In return for being sensible of the privilege of creating community, I receive an embarrassment of riches: loyalty, dedication, trust, personal interest, and human intimacy. Put differently, if you treat people as family, they will treat you as family.
There are two constituencies on which a business leader must focus — an internal one, as I have just described, and an external one: clients, strategic partners, and industry leaders. While I treat that internal constituency as my family, I treat the external one as my friends. A surprising number of entrepreneurs are actually like me – strong introverts. My wife leaves a party exhilarated and hungry for more. I leave exhausted. I will never be an entertainer, and I am not particularly entertaining. But I can approach my external constituency from a place that is genuine and heartfelt for me. And guess what? That seems to work just fine. I take an interest in the lives of my clients, do my best to share their joys and sorrows – keep an eye out for their interests and what they might find interesting. I try, as much as possible, to do what I say I am going to do, even in the smallest things. I never break a confidence. In other words, I treat them like friends, because they are my friends. And in my own way, although I can’t discuss college football or popular culture with any degree of fluency, I am convinced that being myself results in genuine relations based on being both liked and trusted.
So we have covered the “privilege” part, and we have covered the “community” part.
This I believe
What are these beliefs that are so important to me to live by? In the terminology of the NPR special series “This I Believe”:
- I believe in the United States of America. This is still the best country in the world to be an entrepreneur – and it has made me welcome as both an immigrant and a businessman.
- I believe in family. The fundamental skills and confidence needed for entrepreneurship are most often developed in families. And I believe the stability of family life, and the support of a spouse, is essential to the risk taking at the heart of entrepreneurship.
- I believe in making the world a better place for the living of my life and the creation of this business – in small ways or in great.
- I believe in creating something of value that will outlive me.
- I believe I was put on the earth to serve – my community, my family, my church, my clients, and my employees.
- I believe in doing things better for their own sake: to be better today than yesterday, and better still tomorrow.
- I believe in striving – life without striving is an empty existence.
- I believe in diversity in all things: ideas especially, but also culture, religious beliefs and ethnicity. Differences are interesting and should unite us not divide us. Diversity makes us strong.
- I believe in teamwork, but teamwork is more than a word. It requires a conscious decision to place individual success secondary to the goal. That takes guts.
- I believe in personal loyalty. This is more than friendship, more than liking. It’s about connecting with someone’s spirit and standing with him or her, come what may.
- I believe in risk taking. Make a careful plan, and then go with your gut. Have a go. Strikeout. It takes courage, but anything worth having is worth fighting for.
- I believe that money is the lifeblood of every business and that without good financial hygiene a business will fail. However, a business run simply to make money really has nothing to sustain it. Great products, great solutions, great communities equal business success. Money is a by-product of these things – welcome, but not the main event.
- I believe a little humor also is welcome in almost all situations. Lighten up! My parents loved a good joke and felt it was their duty in way, after the horrors of wartime, to enjoy simple, ordinary things like a funny story.
- I believe in kindness … toward people, animals, our planet. We talk a lot about love but too little about kindness. I am a practical man: love is abstract, but kindness is about doing something and is not only meaningful but also measurable.
- I believe in God.
The heart of entrepreneurship
When I found myself, the accidental entrepreneur, as a business leader, I had some strange ideas about the kind of man I needed to grow into: bold and fearless, a kind of a Tarzan figure. It has taken me years to learn that not only is that unnecessary for leadership, but that most successful entrepreneurs that I know are not like that at all. Articulating an attractive vision, being clear about your beliefs and values, balancing determination with a little levity at times, these things add up to leadership far more than dominance or charisma (of which I have neither!).
So my advice to anyone with the itch to start a business is not to be shy to bring who you are into the mix, which is just as important as what you want to do. Because the way you do business is, to me, at the heart of entrepreneurship.