The Serial Entrepreneur

“Who are you then?” I looked up from my champagne glass (I’d been bubble counting), to be confronted by a tenacious looking little man with a bald head and a very sharp suit. “Rob Stevenson, Kingmakers. You?” “James Jones, Serial Entrepreneur”. As we shook hands I was already plotting an escape route, scouring the room for someone, anyone I could hand this guy off to at the earliest possible opportunity. It seems you can identify as almost anything these days, but Serial Entrepreneur is crossing the line…

True to form, he proceeded to unpack his entire professional life for me; brilliant idea, heroic battle for funding, endless self-sacrifice throughout product development, launch, varying degrees of success and then bamb, booted out of the company he founded, branded a bad leaver and shafted on his equity value.

I asked him why he thought that was. I immediately wished I hadn’t. He began a rant that became more and more heated, attracting the attention of others as it built to a climatic question, aimed squarely back at me “if it’s not just greed, why else would you fire the CEO from the company he founded?”

I took a deep breath, reminded myself that I was a guest at this little drinks party and that this chap was probably an important client for the firm that was hosting (many of whom were now huddled round us listening intently), and proceeded to offer an alternative view. It went something like this…

“It takes a very special, creative individual to come up with brilliant ideas. To develop those ideas into products or services, match them to a market, convince the gatekeepers of capital to fund it, build whatever it is and launch it on the world. Now if that idea takes off and becomes an established, enterprise level business, it needs a different kind of leadership; carefully growing a senior management team, developing strategy in a collaborative way, executing consistently, making decisions predictably and displaying good governance.

They are fundamentally different roles. The former suits a calculated risk taker, a hustler, a salesman, in short, a founder and the latter is a role well suited to a career executive, used to spending other people’s money, having subordinates a chain of command, perks and little tangible responsibility.

So if I may, the only mistake you appear to be making, is not cashing out at the right time. If you took a venture to the edge of your capability and character and executed a planned departure, with a handover to the new management team, you’d stand a far better chance of being treated as a hero, and a good leaver to boot.”

Silence. I swear I could hear the cogs creaking into movement in his brain. But then a look of deep thought turned into a look of intense frustration and out came his response “you’re one of them aren’t you? One of the guys that fires founders from their own businesses. You are aren’t you? I knew it. I bloody knew it. I hate you people. Never started anything, never had an original idea, don’t know how to run a company, just stare at spreadsheets all day. That is you isn’t it?”

“No my friend, that’s not me. I’ve started several companies, had success and failure, been funded, been fired, had it all, lost it all, made it back, in short, been there done that. The only difference between you and me, is that I have a deep desire to understand. So instead of being mad about a situation, I tried to understand the motives, the underlying incentives, the business models involved, the funding, all of it, so the next time I’m in a tight spot, I can make a better decision. That’s me.”

“Interesting. I need a wee, back in a minute” and with that he was gone. He didn’t come back. He was the kind of individual that gives entrepreneurship a bad name. Doing it for a very particular set of personal reasons and really not driven by a desire to help anyone other than himself.

The moral of the story? When someone approaches you at a drinks party and describes themselves as a serial entrepreneur, strike first, explain you need to pee and run ;-)

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