start me up

A couple of months ago, a good friend was talking to me about the differences between most people and “entrepreneurs like us.” I had to recoil at the phrase. He’s a real entrepreneur – founded a couple of successful companies, working on a third, constantly driving and innovating and dreaming and creating. At my best I never reached his heights. I’d been a “startup guy” for a dozen years, and proudly wore that badge – as a startup lawyer learning business basics, boardroom battles, and founder secrets; as a venture capitalist investing across sectors and geographies; as a startup manager in multiple different roles and companies. When I finally founded my own company, I felt I could finally accept the label entrepreneur, and it felt great. But it didn’t last very long. I’d accepted a job at a large company not too long before that conversation, so “entrepreneurs like us” couldn’t include me anymore.

I’m not too flexible about the term, unlike those who believe in four types of entrepreneurs. I think an entrepreneur makes a for-profit business that didn’t exist before, without the benefit of existing infrastructure. That rules out what some call social entrepreneurship, because working for nonprofit good is too different than pursuit of viable commercial enterprise. And it rules out corporate entrepreneurship, because starting a new division or business line for an existing company is very different from starting a company from a cocktail napkin.

I said different – I didn’t say harder or more admirable. The numbers probably say that social and corporate efforts are harder, as there seem to be more new companies than there are new social efforts or successful businesses started within large companies.

I’ll differentiate some more: Although I’d include both the fruit stand owner and the tech company titan within my view of entrepreneurs, I don’t think they’re the same in most ways, even at their respective starts. Fruit stands aim for some daily living, selling a well-understood product, within a social infrastructure that understands and supports the concept of buying and eating fruit. The most extreme tech founder dreams of all the money imaginable, with a product that initially seems bizarre, with no apparent revenue model, distribution channel, or plausible customer interest. Although these two kinds of people have something in common, they have a lot more differences. So “entrepreneur” isn’t a binary label – it’s possible for one entrepreneur to be more entrepreneurial than another. Labels are most useful when we use them to distinguish and measure concepts. I don’t like seeing a meaningful word diluted to appease egos or ease conversation.

Because the company I work for now is fairly well known, I should doubly-triply-quadruply emphasize that this is all my opinion, and moreover it’s my opinion about me. I can believe that for many entrepreneurs, coming to Google doesn’t mean that your days as an entrepreneur are over – those entrepreneurs are more entrepreneurial than I ever was, which I’ve admitted isn’t a high bar.

And although I’m still a startup guy at heart, I can believe that Google can in important ways return to its startup roots, even though I’m naturally inclined to disbelieve that a large company can have the “energy, pace and soul of a startup.” But I’d say that you have to measure the energy and pace in the context of the scale of the ambition. People who think that Google is slow or that the competition is anything other than the unknown future are probably underestimating the enormous opportunity remaining in the information economy.

Ah, but that last bit, the “soul” of a startup … what does that even mean? That’s tricky, and probably the topic of another post.

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