A couple of weeks ago I was invited to speak about my experience as an entrepreneur at the Founder Institute in Loyola University in Cordoba, during a session entitled “Vision & Passion” for young entrepreneurs. I have never been employed but rather have always been an entrepreneur. To me an entrepreneur is basically anyone who thinks up an idea for making a living (the idea often being based on what they can offer given their expertise or financial situation to buy and market the services) and seeing it through. In some cases it can result in loss of money and the closing of a business, but in many, many cases entrepreneurs succeed. I am excluding here the frenzy of start-ups that aim too high or use VC money.
I remember a few years ago reading a blog by Scott Anthony who leads Innosight’s Asian operations. An expert in innovation and a leader on the subject, in his blog he quotes, and agrees, that passion is a critical component of innovation and that innovation is awfully hard work with plenty of false starts. But, he believes that passion only matters if it leads to an innovation that delivers impact, measuring that impact in revenue, profit, improved process performance, or as he says, “something entirely different”.
However, I think he misses a major point. Were it not for the passion of the many scientists in the 18th to the 21st century who worked tirelessly and passionately on matters that, at the time, did not deliver any direct impact or were not even measurable in any commercial way, then our world would not be half as developed as it is now. In fact you will agree with me, especially if you’ve read Steve Job’s bio, that most successful innovators are consistently portrayed as possessing a passion that borders on dogmatism. Like Jobs they work tirelessly to bend reality to achieve their vision. Jobs and his “reality distortion field” served as the prototypical example of 21st century innovation.
Some of the most important and basic research that brings about disruptive innovation that which comes from passion and ideas that were impossible to prove as having any initial value. In fact, many with mounting bills and no obvious use or commercial value in a VCs eye, would have been evidence of failure. No wonder many of these scientists or individuals receive awards many, many years later, such as Watson & Crick for their discovery of the DNA structure.
However, I personally believe that in the end, every piece of work done with passion finds its place, high or low, finally leads to a disruptive innovation, directly or indirectly. Many of today’s products are the result of passionate efforts even uncontrolled investigations that did not require hundreds of permits or licenses or came about through pure scientific experimentation in universities by scientists that were just passionate about a particular subject without any attachment to its immediate commercial or disruptive value.
What brings failure and so many unfinished products is exactly that lack of passion. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, professor of business at Harvard Business School, quotes that “everything can look like a failure in the middle”. So if businesses were examined at this half-waypoint half of them, or even more, should be considered a failure.
So, as you can see, I believe in that “something entirely different” that Anthony refers to in his blog. From more or less the age of 14 when I first started having ideas and became interested in business and earning money, I was continuously discouraged by the many wise businessmen around me, including my father, who in his own right has been a very successful businessman and for which I respect him.
I remember when we had just arrived in Spain from France and I purchased my first PC – an Amstrad 6128. I spoke no Spanish and the computer manual was all in Spanish except for the computer commands. It was not long before I started writing programs in Basic; for my mother to keep track of her shopping; my father to run his business; basically anything I could think of that would need a database. None of these programmes were ever used, but sharing the idea and showing the products to most people (apart from my mother) was almost always met with “Yes, but who is going to use it?” And I thought to myself if you want keep an organized business you must be mad not to use it!
But no one used it and ten years later, when I finished university, I suggested to a friend that we should set up an “Internet Service Provider”. It was just the turn of 1994 when the internet had become public and it was just the beginning, but unfortunately not many people could see the potential. At a time when I felt at a loss if I could not check my emails once a day and chat to my online friends, most people considered the internet still as a passing phase, even Bill Gates.
While my passion for creating an ISP and other Internet services was there, I did not have the available funds and resources, so I became a reseller, not just to anyone, but to a select group of people and countries where it was difficult for them to get internet and at almost double or triple the price.
So a few years went by and more and more people got connected. I had numerous other ideas but I was always met with restrictions beyond my control, in some cases political and in others financial. Nevertheless I did not give up testing my ideas; from Persian Ebooks to ByeBye Comissions.com, a website for the real estate boom of the early 2000.
At this point I have to bring in both words Vision and Passion to review why I left those great ideas that could have made it big.
Many VCs might tell you that if you are the pioneer and that if you are doing it before anyone else, it could also mean that there is no market or value in it. It is true, being an early player, often means that the market is not totally mature and ready for you. That was the case for many start-ups in the first round of the dot com frenzy. Many of them were good ideas and many of them have been picked up and tackled again by other entrepreneurs in recent years.
In my view being an early pioneer is good. It gives you certain advantages over the others competitors. First of all, you will hopefully have more users and followers, better knowledge of the market, valid insight into the barrier to entry and resistance to change, but equally it can be a drain on your resources. Depending on your product, what it takes to keep it running, updated and in the news, it could mean that by the time the market is ready you are out of cash. This unfortunately was the case for my current company Urbytus.
Mike Tyson has a great saying “Everybody has a plan, until they get punched in the face.” Passion is necessary to keep pushing when the punch inevitably lands left, right and centre.
In this last case I took the opportunity to invest my time and passion in the arrival of my new baby. During this time I realised I had miscalculated the resistance to change and initial market uptake, coupled with the start of a recession that did not help sales at all. I lost almost the best part of my revenue stream from my core business. But what stopped me from throwing in the towel this time round was my passion. While blinding at times it helped me keep focus on my vision. I knew that all I had to do was keep the concentration and use my other business to help feed my passion and project.
It was not easy but it was not impossible. It took time and the loss of the full, initial team members to the point of requiring the complete rebuild of a whole new team, one that has required tight adjustments and sacrifices, but one that has been worth it.
Paolo Coelho said in one of his recent interviews that “When you want something, the whole universe conspires to help you”.
I quote his advice (copied from the text of his interview). “Knock on as many doors as possible. That’s how I did it in the beginning. People don’t think about this now, but becoming a best-selling author was a long journey and I faced many setbacks along the way. For instance, I had a rough time with my second book The Alchemist. It was first published by a small publishing house and even though it sold well, at the end of the first year, the publisher decided to give me back the rights since, according to his words, “he could make more money in the stock exchange.” At the time I decided to leave Rio with my wife and we spent 40 days in the Mojave dessert. I needed to heal myself from this and when I came I decided to keep on struggling.
I realized that despite the fear and the bruises of life, one has to keep on fighting for one’s dream. As Borges said in his writings “there is no other virtue than being brave.” And one has to understand that braveness is not the absence of fear but rather the strength to keep on going forward despite the fear.”
So, my suggestion to any entrepreneur is that if you have an idea and you are passionate about it, do it and don’t give up until your last drop. You might just regret it when you see someone else triumph because you gave up too early. With this I quote from Jeff Bezos “If everything you do needs to work on a three-year time horizon, then you’re competing against a lot of people. But if you’re willing to invest on a seven-year time horizon, you’re now competing against a fraction of those people, because very few companies are willing to do that.”