Monday, October 18, 2010

Are You A Visionary Entrepreneur?

I think of all the entrepreneurs I have been helping out over the last year or so, 3 stand out as what I would characterize as "Visionary Entrepreneurs".  These are people with a singular vision for what they want to accomplish.  They view their product or company as the vehicle by which they can fulfill a messianic mission to change the world.

Impact of a visionary founder
Many startups can and will succeed without a visionary founder, but the likelihood of either a very big success (or huge flameout) goes up dramatically with a visionary founder.  Visionary founders want to accomplish a big vision, so will keep doubling down on their business despite obstacles, buy out offers, and internal team issues.  Visionary founders are on a mission to change the world via their product or business, and they will do whatever it takes to accomplish that vision.

Characteristics of a visionary entrepreneur
  • Want to change the world.  The goal of a visionary founder is not to make money, impress girls (Facebook movie notwithstanding), or to shmooze with famous people.  What they do want to do is either scratch a big itch they have, or to dramatically change the world (or both).  
    • There is a singular vision the entrepreneur is following, and they will get other people on board to focus on this singular vision.
    • This means the visionary founder won't go for an early (or late) exit.  It is not about money, it is about impact.
    • This means they may be maniacal about the product or service, and unwilling to relent in their pursuit of a vision.  This means not everyone will like them.
    • Examples: Larry and Sergei from Google always talked about wanting to index all the world's info.  Mark Zuckerberg (I am guessing potentially with influence from Sean Parker) from Facebook wanted to connect the world.
  • Willingness to take big risks.  Given their focus on a singular vision, visionary founders will take risks other people won't take in order to make their business work.  They will max out their credit cards and sleep on their friends living room floor in order to keep working on their business.  This is one reason younger people are often more likely to be visionary entrepreneurs (they have less to lose, so it is easier to risk what you don't have - see below :)
    • Example.  Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx not only put his inheritance into FedEx, but also famously took the last cash the company had and went and gambled it in Las Vegas in order to meet payroll.
  • Question the basics, an experimental attitude towards everything.  Visionary entrepreneurs often question the basics.  They ask why things are done a certain way and often try to blaze new paths not only for their product or service, but also in the fundamental ways their business run.  They will experiment with things that more experienced people will take as a standard that should not be mucked with.  This experimental attitude helps drive the creativity and innovation in the organization, although also carries the risk of distracting the organization inappropriately.
    • Examples.  Facebook making an engineer head of HR (Chris Cox) rather then hiring an HR person for this role.  Google building its own computers and networking equipment.  Richard Branson starting an airline (a notoriously bad business) with the Virgin music brand.  Fred Smith from FedEx having pilots help unload FedEx delivery planes.
  • Fast learners.  Given that they question the basics of everything, visionary entrepreneurs can often be perceived as naive or inexperienced.  In many cases they are.  But they ramp quickly and gather information from a lot of sources to drive their success.
  • Youthful.  Most visionary entrepreneurs start businesses when they are very young.  They have a vision and they go for it.  They do not talk about getting a job at Google to "learn how to build products".  They go and build a product in their college dorm.  They are also able to live on close to nothing and the relative opportunity cost of starting a company is small.  They don't have as much experience and the baggage that comes with it, so are willing to experiment aggressively.
    • Examples:  Founders of Facebook, Google, Dell, Virgin, Apple, Microsoft all dropped out of school.
  • Good storytellers and recruiters.  Visionary founders constantly are roping people in to their vision and their company.  They set a big goal people can rally around and attract great talent due to the strength of their personality and vision.  This does *not* mean they have to be the smoothest, most charming people alive.  Rather, the magnetism of their commitment and the enormity of their goal often serves as a way to get people excited enough to join up with them.  They don't talk about getting to "1 million users", they talk about reaching 5 billion.
    • Examples.  When Larry Page of Google was hiring Eric Schmidt as CEO (when Google was just 100 or so people), he told Eric he wanted to build a $100 billion company.  Eric asked "$100 billion market cap?" and Larry replied "No, $100 billion revenue".  At the time Google was still focused on enterprise search as its (in hindsight tiny) revenue source.  Steve Jobs famously recruited John Sculley from Pepsi to be CEO of Apple by asking him "Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or do you want to change the world?"
Any other traits visionary founders have?  Any examples or anecdotes I missed?  Please leave them in the comments section.

You can follow me on Twitter here.