I read an article the other day that I think typifies the way startups and entrepreneurs are portrayed in the media today.
The currents of the story are pretty familiar. In many ways, the way startup founders are portrayed is very similar to the way love is portrayed in hollywood. It’s all about passion and emotion. The ups and downs add suspense, but love triumphs at the end.
I agree that love and passion are often integral in an entrepreneur’s founding story. We have a real preference for founders who are scratching their own itch, or pursuing an authentic desire to solve problems that they have a unique insight into. But building a company over many years and many incarnations is a different sort of labor of love.
I was reminded of this as I was spending some time with my Dad a few weeks ago. He has been an entrepreneur his whole career. But funny enough, he never refers to himself in that way. The heroic image of the entrepreneur in the US would be pretty foreign to him anyway. He always refers to himself as a “hustler”, but not in the hipster tech founder sense of the word.
My Dad started many different businesses. His first job was operating a family owned bowling alley. Then he had some success in the Philippines with an insurance business. But that all went down the tubes during the Philippine Revolution. He basically moved to Hong Kong, started over, and ran a few fast food franchises before starting his own chain of indoor amusement centers (think Chuck-e-cheese without the food) called “Whimsy”. It got to be pretty big – he had dozens of locations across Asia, and the company was acquired by Yaohan, a large Japanese retailer that subsequently went bankrupt during the Asian Financial Crisis (here’s a link to an old old article about the business. He then started a candy business that manufactured and exported hand-made lollipops in Europe and North America, which he ran until he retired several years ago.
Recounting some of his stories, it was funny to see how the realities of his life as an entrepreneur was so contrary to the romantic myth of startups we read about. His companies were borne out of opportunities and gaps he saw in the market, not out of a love to entertain. He spent most of his time obsessing over financial metrics, cash flow, negotiating with suppliers, etc and no time doing the 1980′s equivalent of speaking at conferences, blogging, talking to press, going to SXSW, etc. The day to day was also incredibly messy – if you’ve ever watched Hong Kong crime dramas, you know that the types of businesses my Dad ran would often have to deal with the local mafia or “triads” (some of these folks actually visited our home once). There were good times, and bad times. Times of tons of stress. Whimsy was a success, but in other cases, he had to fight and claw his way to a sale so that he could just recover some of his own and his investors money.
Bringing this back to the present – when I see up close the efforts of founders that I work with, it looks a lot more like what my Dad went through than what I read about in blogs. Pivots sometimes happen because you are pursuing a discovered business opportunity, not because you found your true love and started pursuing that. When you “lose interest” in a space, many great founders persist for years and try to get to a good outcome for the sake of their investors, employees, and their own reputation. Even rocket ship companies aren’t all about lunchtime guest speakers, whiteboarding, and “designing for yourself”. There’s a lot that goes into building a valuable and sustainable business. I do believe there has to be some undercurrent of love – either of the problem, product, company, or process. But it’s more like the real love, not the stuff of romance films.