There comes a point in the life of many people when they think to themselves: I can do it myself, and I can sure as heck do it better than anyone else out there. And so they quit their comfortable job, maybe put other things in life on hold, and tighten their belt. They begin to work towards a dedicated purpose, putting their whole effort and being into creating something many people will find valuable and, in the end, pay money for. And so an entrepreneur is born. Entrepreneurship is the engine of innovation, the hallmark of modern civilisation, and the only hope and salvation of saving our planet.
The only little niggling question that remains is what exactly is the “it” that they can do better than anyone else? Having worked with many entrepreneurs in the technology startup world, and having spent 14 years in the internet space, I find that “it” rarely involves the ability to build products that people use. Meeting this condition just happens to be necessary for a venture to succeed. We’ll call it Condition 0 (note that there are four important words in the condition). Quite often, entrepreneurs are indeed naturally good at, or driven to be good at, many things. Just rarely that one. If you have any doubt, you’ll have to try to explain really hard why else would 70-90% of all start-ups fail.
There are generally two kinds of entrepreneurs in the internet startup world that I have encountered. The first I’ll call “the Visionary”. The Visionary will often have a conception of a game-changing value proposition that might be quite unique or have huge potential. He is usually very voluble and persuasive, generally able to recruit people, and funding, to his venture. His skills are most on display at pitch meetings, conferences, and company outings. He is very good at understanding the “people” part of Condition 0, and may even have a decent conception of the “use” part. That is, the Visionary can literally visualise (and explain) how people will use the new concept or how the venture will benefit them. However, in many cases, the visionary also thinks that he knows exactly what needs to be done to convert this vision into reality and make it a concrete offering. Don’t be that guy. As a Visionary entrepreneur, realise that your skills are not in execution. It is extremely unlikely that you know how to “build” something. That you have the patience, organisational ability, structured thought, or even managerial talent to create a concrete piece of work. Nor do you really understand that a “product” requires the planning of specific features, user flows, inputs, outputs, implicit and explicit messaging, technological components, etc. all arranged and developed in proper sequence with proper priority. As a Visionary, do what you do best: develop the broad vision, inspire stakeholders, and go raise some money! Find the right people to “build the product” for you and fulfil Condition 0. Think Richard Branson and all the great managers he’s hired along the way. Be that guy.
The other kind of entrepreneur I’ll call “The Engineer”. These are probably more prevalent in the internet startup world, because they are usually born of a hard-working coder who has been solving problems for a long time and perhaps has identified a particular issue that everyone has or that she would like to solve on a much larger scale. The Engineer is, of course, without equal at “building” things – a requisite for Condition 0. She may even have had decent experience in previous jobs building “products” with well-defined scope, cohesive feature sets, release schedules, and possibly even usability analyses. However, the Engineer may also believe that getting the solution distributed, adopted, and monetised on a mass scale is just a question of coding something that she and her friends (probably also engineers) find pretty cool. Don’t be that gal. As an Engineer entrepreneur, realise that your skills are not in the psychology and behaviour of humans, competitive response prediction, or message positioning and PR. That you might know how you or your friends will use the product, but that you have no idea how all the other “people” in the wider world will perceive or interact with it. Moreover, driving “usage” requires creating the solution in a way that lines up with user needs at a particular time and place, make it clear to the user what the value to them is, pre-empts competitors, and creates long-term brand equity. As an Engineer, do what you do best: develop kick-ass technology or even intellectual property, create low-cost, high-performance architectures, manage and mentor other engineers in your company, and release good products fast. Hire the right team to help you figure out what will “people use” and commercialise the product, thereby fulfilling Condition 0. Think Larry and Sergey hiring Eric. Be those guys.
One of the characteristics of a good entrepreneur is that she realises her strengths and weaknesses and has no hesitation in hiring people to complement her own skills. She is proud of what she is good at, and has no embarrassment whatsoever over filling out her team with superior talent. I will stress that a good entrepreneur isn’t one that gives the appearance of having all the angles covered on her own. (Nor is it one that got lucky and pawned off a venture onto some other sap with stupid money – that’s just a good con man.) A good entrepreneur is precisely and only one that has built a product that people use. And that requires many skills.