Read an Excerpt
One of the great myths about entrepreneurs is that they are masters of their own destinies. When we first dream of owning our own business, how do we visualize ourselves? Usually we picture a secure, dynamic, self-confident superhero who can "leap tall buildings in a single bound" without even losing her breathaesomeone who never worries, never panics, never gives in to emotion, who remains cool, and who always outsmarts the bad guys.
A few years back, a popular movie named Tucker brought this vision to life. Based on a true story, Tucker was a feel-good "David and Goliath" movie about a lone entrepreneur who, tinkering in his garage on evenings and weekends, invented an automobile that ran better and lasted longer than anything Detroit was then capable of producing. Most auto entrepreneurs in such a situation today would get a patent on their invention, license the patent to a major auto company, and live the rest of their lives on the royalty income. But the movie was set in the late 1940s. People must have been different back then. Tucker girded his loins, set up his own manufacturing company with borrowed money, and took on the Big Three automakers chin to chin. Of course, he was wiped off the map, but everyone applauded Tucker at the end of the movie. Square-jawed, stoic, braving the odds no matter how much the deck was stacked against him, and holding his head up high as he strode into bankruptcy court, Tucker had unquestionably gained hero status.
We have seen tens of thousands of entrepreneurs in our careers as venture capitalist and business lawyer, and we see very few Tuckers. The few we see usually do very badly. The people we see (the successful ones,especially) will never become the subject of a Hollywood movie, except perhaps for one directed by Woody Allen. If we were to introduce to you ten of the most successful entrepreneurs we have met and gave you the chance to talk candidly with them in a soundproof room for an hour or two, we bet the first thing you would say upon leaving the room would be "My God! These are some of the most insecure, neurotic people I have ever seen in my life! I don't think they're sure of their own middle names, much less their businesses. Are you sure these are the good ones?"
Yes, we're sure. Contrary to the popular image, the people who succeed as entrepreneurs are extremely insecure about who they are and what they do. The minute they become as self-confident and self-assured as Tucker (the movie version), they have taken the first step toward failure.
Of Rabbits, Lions, and Entrepreneurs
Have you ever seen a rabbit up close and personal? Maybe in a pet shop, a petting zoo, or in your backyard eating your vegetable garden? If you have, the first thingwe mean the very first thingaeyou notice about the rabbit is that it is constantly in motion. The whiskers are wiggling, the ears are twitching, the teeth are constantly grinding away at something, the tail is vibrating, the haunches are thumping. You can get tired very easily looking at a rabbit. A rabbit (apologies to John Updike) is never truly at rest unless it is dead. Even when the rabbit is sleeping, parts of its body are in motion, alert, ready for anything. The rabbit is an animal that is incredibly well tuned to what's going on in its immediate environment.
Why do you think the rabbit is designed that way? Well, we are not animal experts, of course, but we think it's because the rabbit, being a highly intelligent animal, knows its place in the food chain. This is not, after all, a creature that stalks the forest, leaping and pouncing upon its helpless prey, roaring its triumph. More likely, the rabbit is on the receiving end of the Darwinian stick, and it knows this. If a rabbit is sitting in the grass munching on whatever it has found to eat, and it sees, in the distance, out of the corner of its eye, a leaf on a faraway bush start to twitch rhythmically, the rabbit (correction: the successful rabbit, the one that lives to reproduce) says to itself, "Now, that can be any of several things. It can be raindrops falling on the leaf making it twitch. It could be a gentle summer breeze. Or . . . it could be a fox behind that bush whose rhythmic breathing is making the leaf twitch. I'm not taking any chances; I am getting the hell out of here!" And the rabbit hightails it down its hole. Many times it is raindrops or a gentle summer breeze that makes the leaf twitch. But every once in a while it is a fox looking for its next meal.
Next, let's consider the lion (bet you didn't expect to read about rabbits and lions in a business book). Have you ever seen a lion in a zoo? It's a big disappointment, isn't it? You expect the lion to be ferocious, roaring every three minutes, chasing and tearing apart its prey, perched on a rock Lion King-style surveying its domain with an imperious air. Instead, what do you see? The lion is sprawled on a rock, snoozing away, occasionally twitching an ear to rid itself of an annoying housefly or scratching itself in places you have to keep the kids from staring at, and generally giving the impression that it hasn't done an honest day's work since it received its visa from the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Why do you think the lion is designed that way? Same as the rabbit, the lion knows its place in the food chain. Except for those pesky two-legged creatures in white pith helmets, wearing designer shorts, and carrying shotguns, there really isn't much in the jungle the lion has to be afraid of.