Sunday, June 19, 2011

Daddies Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Entrepreneurs

Some ruminations on Father’s Day, in three Acts.

Act I

Many years ago when I was a second-year MBA student, I made a little extra coin by working a couple of afternoons a week in Admissions.  My job was to provide informational interviews for prospective students, telling them about the school, the admissions process and my own experiences.

On a typical afternoon I might see three or four college juniors and seniors, each for an hour or so.  Occasionally, however, I would be visited by a high school sophomore or junior being towed in by his or her parents.  The four of us would settle into a room already claustrophobic for two and then, inevitably, the father would look me in the eye and ask, “How do we get into Harvard?”

Now, at 25 years old I did not yet have a finely honed sense of irony (“We?  Do you have frogs in your underwear?”), nor did I possess the full firepower of my current passive-aggressive arsenal (“So, young man, how long ago was your father rejected?”).

The truthful answer to the old man’s question, “How do we get into Harvard,” was: First of all, we don’t.  And second, quit worrying about it.  If your kid has some ability, and more interest, and a boatload of luck, and really wants it, and it’s four years later, there will be a chance.  Yes, he can go to a good college and work hard and start a student laundry business or a campus computer business or work for P&G or Goldman Sachs afterwards.  All that helps.  But even back in the good old 1980s when grad school competition was less intense, the folks in Admissions could still receive10,000 applications in a season, struggle to winnow them down, and still have about 2500 great candidates for a class of 800.  So, even great candidates only had a 1 in 3 chance.

That’s a roll of the dice.  In fact, that’s a roll of the dice to which you should not aspire in high school.  Most of all, that’s not a thing a Dad should do to his child.

Act II

Now, want to know something far more of a crapshoot than getting into an elite business school?   Being a successful entrepreneur.  We can quibble about success, but you know what I mean:  Launching a product or service that truly disrupts the status quo, creates jobs and customers, and builds value for investors.

If you have children, you’ll be able to understand this next scene:  Your toddler wants to put his finger in the electrical socket.  Or maybe stick a toy in it.  Or maybe he just wants to lick it.  In any case, the electrical socket is the most fascinating thing in the world.  You move him away once.  Then twice.  You distract him, but about five minutes later he’s at it again.

Hold that thought.
I read with interest the recent Wall Street Journal article, “How to Raise an Entrepreneur: Tips On Putting Your Kids on a Path to Running Their Own Business.“  This, of course, takes my old MBA loco parentis interview to a whole new level.  Now, it seems, we’re going to shape our child’s entrepreneurial success not from high school, but from birth.  

There are, the author writes, “crucial psychological traits an entrepreneur needs to succeed. . .and parents should help kids develop them at every opportunity.”  The attributes turn out to be: adventurous (“parents should urge kids to explore their environment”--like on vacation: try different restaurants!), dependable, conscientious and emotionally stable (urge children “to take steps such as waiting to respond when they lose their temper), observant,  team play (ah, sports can be great for entrepreneurial values), and leadership by example.

Frankly, this doesn’t pass the smell test for me. There’s nothing particularly entrepreneurial about any of these traits.  Said another way, aren’t these good things to teach your kids in order for them to be successful at most anything?  Butcher, baker, candlestick maker.  Cowboy.  Fireman.  Teacher.  Fortune 50 accountant.  Entrepreneur.

Do you want an emotionally unstable dentist?  How about a bus driver who is undependable?  

I keep coming back to this simple idea that classifying entrepreneurs as a particular kind of personality type is just plain misguided, especially when the list is entirely anecdotal in nature like this one.  I can show you an entrepreneur with great observational powers, and one with severe tunnel vision.  I can show you entrepreneurs whose egos are so large they can’t possibly be team players, at least for long.

I have seen exactly one academic study on the topic--highlighted in this post--which came to a single and powerful conclusion: The overwhelming trait of successful entrepreneurs--far above anything else--is persistence.  

The study does not disambiguate the quality.  It can be persistence because an entrepreneur sees the world more clearly than others, or because she is smarter.  Maybe, though, it's because he won’t listen, or because he’s blinded by other factors, or because he is desperate and has no other choices.  Persistence comes in many flavors.

And, while everything else is secondary to that quality, the author of the study fully acknowledges that persistence might also be the number one quality of the failed entrepreneur.  In other words, persistence may give your child  the very best chance of being a successful entrepreneur, but is clearly not enough.  Some of those other skills listed in the WSJ article surely come into play, as does sheer horsepower under the hood, great networking, available capital, a good business model, sleepy competition, and copious amounts of good timing and luck.

My theory is this:  An entrepreneur is not defined by some Freudian analysis, or by being exposed to new restaurants as a child,  but by what he accomplishes. An entrepreneur creates value by disrupting a traditional business cycle.  That’s all.  The proof is in the doing.  Some of those entrepreneurs who have been successful doing this have very few of the qualities we admire.  Except,  I’ll bet you dollars to donuts, they are persistent.

So, the fourth time your persistent toddler tries to put his tongue in the electrical socket, and you’ve run out of those safety plugs and you can’t distract him or her, be aware that you are forming a little entrepreneur.  

After all, what says “entrepreneur” better than the third time your 18-month old daughter  throws her Cheerios on the floor?   Or the persistence with which your youngest daughter waits to go to the bathroom until she’s placed in the bathtub with her two older siblings.

Encourage that kind of activity.  Persistence is, after all, the one true quality of future entrepreneurs.

A joke there, Dad.  Sort of.

Despite 54 kid-years of experience,  I don’t profess to know all that much about bringing up children.  I do think, though, that there are two really important things dads can do for their kids: keep them safe, and help them find the thing they love.  It could be software, teaching, automobiles, the outdoors, stars, biology, writing, accounting, history, bugs, physics or comic books--whatever.  One day, after they’ve left home and they’ve done what they love for long enough to truly get it, they’ll also begin to understand where and how it can be improved.  Or disrupted.  They’ll understand the real pressing problems of their craft or business.  They might even spot a breakthrough.

That is the best time to become an entrepreneur.  Maybe the only really good time.  Knowing a little about the world before launching a company keeps young folks from trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist with a solution nobody cares about--a core disease of the twenty-first century entrepreneurial economy.

Kids.  Keep em safe, Dad.  Help them find the thing they truly love.  It’s from that place the happy and gifted entrepreneurs come.

Act III

In 1965 my father gave my mother a beautiful Seth Thomas, 8-day clock for their anniversary.  He wound it every Sunday evening, somewhere between Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and The Wonderful World of Disney, when the hands allowed access to all three keyholes on the face required to keep the time, chimes and hourly gong going. 


The clock sat on their fireplace mantle for decades, chiming every fifteen minutes all day and all night--a marvel at first, then a distraction, and finally a part of the rhythm of our home.  I remember lying in my bed in junior high and high school, unable to sleep in the wee hours of the morning because of a big test the next day or some other adolescent angst, with those comforting chimes keeping me company.

We lost my parents--both way too young--and our home inherited the clock.  Now, every Sunday morning, I take the key and wind the clock.  And for the minute or so it takes me to make sure everything is in order, I have a conversation with my dad.  I give him a quick update on life, he gives me a little good advice, and maybe we laugh about something one of the kids did.  Then I slide the key back under the clock and go about my business for the week.

It’s one of my favorite moments of the week.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad!