Game changers; they are the holy grail of business. They are the product, idea or person that is introduced to an organization that fundamentally changes how your business or industry operates. And as entrepreneurs interested in sustainable growth, we’re we’re constantly on the hunt for game changers.
In our office, we have on the wall a frame that says “ideas rule” – reminding everyone that the idea is more important than the author. In our creative teams, we do our best to foster an environment where anyone, regardless of their role in the company is invited to share ideas, insights or potential solutions. I had this phrase framed early in my entrepreneurial career believing that ideas are king. This is not to suggest that all ideas are equal, because they certainly are not. However, it was meant to suggest that authorship takes a distant third place to the nature and quality of an idea. If, for example, an intern had an idea that challenged one of the CEO, and it proved to be a better idea, the company would embrace the better idea every time. At a glance, this sounds like common sense, but like most philosophical ideas, it is easier talked about than practiced. Before leaving traditional Corporate America, I had witnessed plenty of turf wars that in the end stymied creativity and intellectual honesty and retarded employee morale. I’ve remained committed to fighting the tendency toward pride within my own companies and will ever do so.
However, there is a paradox to “ideas rule.” In trying to build creative business solutions, regardless of the industry you work, one must also be careful not to confuse ideas with people. At a glance, this would seem to contradict my earlier argument that ideas are more important than authorship. However my initial argument is principally about creating a culture of mutual respect and the free flow of ideas.
In Jim Collin’s book, Good to Great, he discusses the importance of getting the “right people on the bus” as a metaphor for driving a successful company. He challenges his readers to consider “first who, then what” as a means getting the “right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus)” and then “[figuring] out where to drive it.” This is critical to the long term growth and success of any business.
In the last 11 years I’ve seen a lot of entrepreneurs come to the table bursting at the seams with ideas and enthusiasm. A few of them had great ideas, others not so much. One of the key factors that affected their success or failure was whether they had the right team assembled – and most did not. This, it would seem, is why the statistics on startup failures is so high. At M4, we challenge many of the entrepreneurs who enlist our incubation services about their selection of officers and key players, among other things. We’ve found that some are in denial about the qualifications of their chosen people and their readiness to do what is necessary to make that business succeed. Many of them cite their affection toward and trust of their team members as the reason for their selection – but have taken no honest inventory as to whether or not the individual is qualified to perform.
Many entrepreneurs confuse enthusiasm for an idea and affection for friends with the merits of the business opportunity and qualifications of their colleagues. Almost universally, inexperienced entrepreneurs tend to surround themselves with friends rather than qualified hires. We understand this tendency as stepping out on one’s own is scary – and one way to mitigate the fear of failure is to surround yourself with people who will make you feel comfortable. This is often the first and fatal mistake of a young start-up. One of our board members who has years of experience in the venture capital world has often said that the first thing an investment team will look to do is to find an entrepreneurs boss.
In most cases investors bet on the jockey before the horse. Knowing how to build a product is one thing, but running a successful business that capitalizes on your product quite another. If you have a great idea but bad leadership, you’re not likely to go far. And most often it isn’t the business plan, product or service that captures investor interest but rather the leadership behind the business. When M4 works with businesses, we want to know if people are capable of anticipating problems before they arise, perceptive enough to know when they need help and aren’t afraid to get it.
The same pride seen in creative circles is also seen in entrepreneurs themselves. A few weeks ago we were working with a young entrepreneur who had spent countless late nights developing some decent web technology, but in the end, he was more concerned about is “sweat equity” and bringing friends along rather than considering a bigger view of the market and his likely role in that space. The right experience is worth infinitely more than sweat equity. Experience will turn your sweat into gold. Sweat equity alone is only salt water and is born of sore muscles and in many cases unproductively. There’s a reason a significant majority of businesses fail in their first few years.
About a year ago we worked with a business who had absolutely brilliant content but a nearly schizophrenic view of their own business. Oscillating between significantly different business and sales models, this company spent valuable resources on back end support technology before considering whether that was the right choice. It wasn’t. Time and money were spent unproductively. Moreover, we found ourselves caught in a flurry of closed door, then open door meetings, and we quickly observed that this company suffered systemic leadership challenges that inhibited real growth and development. When asked by the founder to open up our network for funding sources, we were hesitant because we weren’t convinced they had the right leadership in place. Had this company stopped and taken a closer look at the resources they initially had at their disposal (experienced business partners), they would have realized solutions were readily available. If strong leaders are game changers, then weak leaders can be game changers, too.
As an organization, we’ve learned from personal experience and through careful observation of others what works and what doesn’t work. And we’re keen on capitalizing on that knowledge. We’re not interested in, as Mr. Collins puts it “[people who] credit substantial blame to bad luck, frequently bemoaning the difficulties of the environment they faced”, and are rather interested in “level 5 leaders [that] are fanatically driven, infected with an incurable need to produce results.”
M4 has recently started a new business unit that has tremendous potential and we have every confidence that it will be successful. We’re ecstatic about the team we have behind the business because they are the right people, in the right seats doing the right stuff. They are genuine game changers who bring value, insight and strong work ethics to the table.
We believe Mr. Collins when he said, “People are not your most important asset. The right people are.” The right people are game changers. And to borrow a modern colloquialism: “we’re all about that.”