When considering the prospects for an early-stage business, it’s hard to know the right ingredients for success. You might assess the firm's business model, and value proposition. You might look for diverse traits in the founders, such as passion, vision, resilience, and creativity. You might look for other intangibles. Although everyone has a view on what matters, there’s no substitute for opinions that come directly from the crucible of entrepreneurship -- the first-hand accounts of people who have their sleeves rolled up, and who are working in the business.
In “Entrepreneurs in the Midst: Stories from Founders, Creators, and Builders,” by Renny McPherson and Joe Flood, the authors interview 16 hands-on entrepreneurs, and their accounts provide a unique frame of reference for isolating the essential qualities for new business success.
The book focuses on the inspirational, positive and uplifting aspects of startup life, and covers a wide range of early-stage businesses and entrepreneurs with a variety of backgrounds and skill sets. As I read through these assorted narratives, connections emerged between the interests, experience and talents of the individuals, and how these shaped the companies they were involved in. While each story was different, they had a lot in common.
What I like about the book
There’s something for everyone in this book. No matter what business you are in, or what your background, there are valuable pearls of wisdom that will apply to your situation. The people were fascinating, and so were the businesses. The authors’ astute questions set up an evolving dialog that ranged from personal histories, and reflections on interests and motivation, to business rationale and strategy details. I enjoyed learning about a range of new businesses, covering an array of fields from human resources, security, health care, insurance, to video games, music, crowdfunding and financial services. It’s a wide world out there.
The book was arranged thematically in four sections, based on the shared backgrounds of the entrepreneurs.
The first group consisted quantitative, technology and academic entrepreneurs, who had migrated into business. They had PhDs and other advanced degrees, were science and data driven, and used algorithms. They leveraged their quant backgrounds to create products and services that solved problems in elegant ways. They translated scientific methods from the lab into day-to-day practical solutions, and moved from a quant-driven mindset to a communication-focused approach.
The second group of entrepreneurs had made the transition from management consulting to building companies. A consulting background provided a number of benefits. Entrepreneurs developed a cross-functional skillset and an appreciation for how to use data in useful ways that could be applied to business. There were some shared themes. A focus on culture and hiring; a tendency to stay positive; an ability to work with a team.
The third section was focused on creative entrepreneurs. Rather than taking a lot of venture capital based on a technology, these bold souls followed their passions and through sheer force of will, grit and perseverance found a way to create sustainable businesses. There was a video game enthusiast, a child actor, a musician. This group focused on things like taking only small amounts of capital, developing branded content, being creative in generating revenue and staying true to a vision.
The fourth group of entrepreneurs came from financial backgrounds. They were traders and investment bankers with pedigrees from places like Lehman Brothers and JP Morgan. This group had tried life at big firms and found it unsatisfying. But they were able to leverage aspects of that experience, such as an appreciation for numbers and how to tell a story, to create new ventures that were more personally fulfilling.
I had some issues with the huge number of interviews -- the brief space devoted to each interviewee was a letdown for me at times. I felt like every time I started to get engaged in the message from a company founder, the chapter ended just when I was hungry to learn more.
I also felt the book was a little light on input from the authors. For instance, I wanted to know more about how they chose the entrepreneurs and businesses. Also, since they spent a lot of time with these entrepreneurs, I wanted to know how they thought about the factors that related to success after talking to this group. There was really no attempt to really "stitch" the interviews together and leave us with a list of potential solutions and/or takeaways. Were there common strands of DNA that seemed to equate with success? The reader can review the interviews and develop the answer on their own, but the authors should have made a better attempt at guiding the reader in the right direction. Or perhaps the authors purposely didn't guide the reader, in hopes they would come to their own conclusions?
In the end, reading this book was a little like looking into a kaleidoscope, with colors and forms tumbling in patterns. There was lots to see, but it required interpretation.
One thing that came through powerfully for me was that new businesses can be created when passion meets a drive to change the world. While there’s no one size fits all approach, hearing from a variety of founders provides a perspective on certain things that might be crucial. A connection between personal interests and business goals. An independent mindset. A drive to solve problems.
I always thought it was amusing when I saw business plan competitions that were judged by bankers, as is sometimes the case. Sure, they might have views about, say, an industry or a business model, but I always wondered why this group should have especially valuable insights. There’s something antiseptic in how a banker views a startup. They lack a personal connection to the business.
Meanwhile, hearing about businesses from entrepreneurs who are “in the midst,” can give you genuine insight into the process because they live it every day. It's not just products and financials and facts around businesses they describe - it's their lives and personalities that add something vital. Perhaps this is a good lesson of the book: In order to succeed, you really do have to live it.