Over the last 50 years, I’ve watched and worked with hundreds of entrepreneurs who have won many hard-fought and difficult battles to turn their dreams into reality and who have also lost as many contests as well. They would say that both the highs and the lows were important educational opportunities, but that the main life lesson was quite simple: the best of them took what they learned from both the ups and the downs and never gave up. In many cases, they ultimately did what older and more experienced professionals and other industry “experts” believed (and freely told them) was virtually impossible. Sometimes they accomplished this feat by not knowing any better; oft times by not listening to the naysayers or asking anyone’s permission; and sometimes because they simply wouldn’t or couldn’t quit.
Through sheer force of will, a tremendous amount of hard work, and unrelenting perseverance, they eventually created an entirely new enterprise from an idea and they built something important – not only for themselves – but for many others as well. Some of their businesses changed the ways in which we go about our daily lives. Others made a more modest contribution, but the startup struggle just as surely changed those individual entrepreneurs’ lives; the lives of the many people they touched and influenced; and especially the lives of those who worked alongside them in long-lasting and important ways.
And, although each of these businesses was unique, and the underlying trials, tribulations and circumstances were certainly different, there were common elements in the experiences of the entrepreneurs that I believe have a value for the rest of us far beyond the mere retelling of their specific stories. Extracting and sharing the primary principles, the recurring patterns, and the cautionary tales is the main reason that I do so much teaching and speaking. But why me you might ask?
I’m just as much an everyday entrepreneur as anyone you’ll ever meet, but I’ve also spent more than 3 decades teaching about innovation, disruptive technologies, change management and entrepreneurship to thousands of students and business leaders across the world. In addition, I’ve built and transformed businesses over and over again which is an exceedingly rare circumstance since even the best of the entrepreneurial breed are lucky to have pulled off this most magical trick once or twice at most. And, in some of the most impressive cases, we’ll never really know whether the ones who finally got it done were extremely smart or extremely lucky (or both) or maybe just in the right place at the right time.
As a result, I’ve come to realize in the process that the best people to document and explicate the lessons they learned aren’t the ones who suffered the most and actually created and grew the businesses. They haven’t been afforded the many chances and the time that I have had to synthesize the experiences into a coherent and consistent body of knowledge. In addition, not only are entrepreneurs not the most introspective of folks (even if they’re willing to take the time to look back), but they suffer – particularly in the heat of battle – from selective memory, in-game amnesia, and an amazing capacity to get over (and forget about) the bumps, the mistakes, and the hard times and just get on with building their business. I believe that they’re simply too close to the action to be an objective observer and it turns out that it’s actually pretty hard to see the big picture if you’re inside the frame.
So, to help my peers and those coming after along the path, I’ve spent the last 6 years writing a weekly column for INC. Magazine on anything and everything entrepreneurial and it’s been an amazing and rewarding job. Any entrepreneur will tell you that bringing your idea into being and making it real is a lonesome, painful and often thankless task and one with no assurances or certainty of success. As a result, the slightest bit of support, even a little earnest encouragement, and especially impartial advice and a great mentor or two can make all the difference on those most difficult of days when you wonder – as we all do - whether it’s worth it.