Republished from How to Web
Prior to speaking at the How to Web Conference, Valerica Dragomir asked me five questions about my views on entrepreneurship. Here is what came out of it.
HTW: How would you define an entrepreneur? What makes one more of an entrepreneur: the mindset, the skill set, or the network? How do you see entrepreneurship: more like a sprint or more like a marathon?
I don’t believe in recipes — not even in the kitchen since I love cooking (maybe this is the reason why my baking experiments are anything but edible). I believe that we (humans) are changing, evolving, slowing down, shifting focus, falling in love, obsessing over some things while completely ignoring other more important ones. There is no clear boundary for when you become “more of an entrepreneur.”
All three things are essential: mindset, skill set, network. I would add passion, anger, talent, obsession, empathy, pragmatism, a pinch of delusion and a great deal of luck.
I don’t believe in boxes either. Putting things in boxes gives people the illusion of understanding something that is too complex for our limited brains. So, if you want to put the entrepreneurial journey in some boxes, it will look like a sprint at times, like a marathon other times, like wrestling on Fridays, like weight-lifting when you miss deadlines, maybe like yoga if you read that meditating 5 minutes a day with an app makes you a better entrepreneur. It looks like a boring never-ending chaos most of the time.
HTW: What are some of the processes an early-stage entrepreneur should apply strictly? Can you please detail from a business point of view and from a management point of view?
You know that annoying answer, “it depends”? It applies here too. Nobody figured out the magic sauce yet — otherwise, they would be relaxing on a tropical island, instead of writing business books.
Instead, here are some things that work for me. They won’t make you successful, but what I will say is that whenever I don’t apply these principles, I get burned or suffer a significant setback.
Sleep! For a few years, I was involved in four different companies, one NGO, teaching and mentoring in two major international programs, all these while traveling. I felt I was losing my mind whenever I was not sleeping properly. The radical shift in productivity and well being came when I finally understood that energy management is a lot more important than time management.
Be disciplined! Many of my friends will describe me as a robot or control freak who has all his life planned in Trello or a spreadsheet. I wish I were that disciplined. For me, discipline is not an extrinsic constriction, but rather a trait that allows me to do whatever I want to do, whenever I want to do it, not when my calendar lets me. Discipline is not about getting out at 5 AM and running for 10Km, but rather about making sure that I have a plan for what I am doing, instead of spending my life on a to-do list created usually by others (clients, colleagues, suppliers, friends, etc.).
Don’t work with assholes! Life is too short, and this rule fires back with no exception. Remember this next time when you get burned, after working with an asshole and hoping that the money you get makes it worth.
Be nice! Duh! Your mom told you that, too!
HTW: Once a startup starts to grow, the entrepreneur becomes less of an innovator, and more of a manager/businessman. Would you agree on that? What’s your take on this?
There are three hats: the handyman, the manager, and the entrepreneur — here I am putting people in boxes, I hate myself now! (Nah, not really, I am just quoting Michael E. Gerber).
In many cases, the startup journey requires you to wear more the handyman hat (you don’t have the money to pay other people to do it), and you’re more a janitor (you have to clean up all the mess) than the CEO title in your pitch deck or your secret belief that you’re a real entrepreneur. Later on (hopefully), you get some revenue (don’t laugh if you’re a business owner, in tech startups revenue is an odd occurrence), then you hire other people so you can be a real CEO.
Now, you finally have a team but have to manage people and also do their work (because your revenue is not that big for you to hire the best experts — they’re going to big outsourcing corporations where they get paid double). Let’s say you’re fortunate and finally get to a nicer revenue, hire better people and get over your OCD on their work. You realize you have no idea what management really is, then you start reading books about Management 2.0, Recruitment 3.0 and Operations 4.0. Nothing makes real sense (if you’re lucky you don’t have to go through an MBA for that), and what makes sense seems like common sense, but it’s unpredictable.
After struggling with this for a while, you end up either becoming a better manager or getting used to being the same mediocre one over and over. Entrepreneurial mindset and innovation are a concern when you give interviews, but not really on your to-do list when paying salaries and keeping your investors happy are what makes you twitch.
Management is about predictability, while entrepreneurship is about the unknown. So to become the visionary entrepreneur again, you have to stop working in the business and start working on the business (from the outside). Which is hard because you’re in permanent conflict with the person who’s managing the company, because you want to friggin’ change everything that’s working now, spend the hard earned money on some stupid experiments, without any commitment, accountability or anything than the gut feeling to support your “innovative and disruptive vision.” I don’t know about others, but this was my journey.
HTW: Are there any changes regarding processes applied after a startup becomes an established company? If yes, what changes and what is the impact?
As a startup, you think you know what you’re doing. You’re wrong (I don’t need to prove that, the future will). What you have is a fuzzy dream, and most of everything (processes, people, products, even vision) will change every few months. There is no point in creating procedures for everything. What is critical is the ability to work as fast as possible and break as many assumptions as possible (yes, exactly Facebook’s “Move fast. Break things” mantra). As a startup, it’s better to optimize for optionality: be flexible and adaptable.
As a revenue-generating company, you want predictability of your revenue and your growth. This is why you start putting in processes. I try to put procedures in place only when they are useful for a team, and they bring a definite improvement. Not to create a rigid box of “this is how we do stuff here” which ends up creating a culture that will attract nobody really smart.
HTW: Regarding work-life balance, is there any difference between working for a startup and working for a large company? Most people live with the idea that a startup means more freedom, more fun, etc. Is this a myth or a reality?
There is a joke saying “Entrepreneurs are people to quit working for 40 hours per week so that they can work for 80 hours per week”. It’s not a joke, it’s reality before you learn how to manage being an entrepreneur.
Work is an essential part of life for me. I don’t really like people who can’t wait to retire, but I’ve come to accept that they might have different wishes, mindsets and personal priorities which makes retirement an attractive concept.
Even in their case, I think the whole work-life balance debate is bullshit. We have to make some choices in life (usually having to choose three items from this or a longer list: career, family, friends, hobbies, health) and nobody usually forces us to choose a career instead of family or friends. It’s our inability to manage the consequences of our choices that creates the drama and complaints.
And if you’re complaining about it, think of this: if you really-really-really want something in your life, you will find a way to do it eventually.
That’s why I don’t play guitar in a famous rock band. Instead, I’m giving interviews like this one (I really-really-really love to give stupid advice which some people might accidentally take as useful).