Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Paradigms and Serial Entrepreneurs: The Language of Business

There are certain words and phrases that creep into the business lexicon.  At first they’re clear, useful, and appropriate, but, squeezed beyond their means, become burdensome and hackneyed.

Paradigm is a word like that, and more especially, paradigm shift.  When I first heard it in 1980 or so it was like hearing “weltanschauung” for the first time in high school:  It was so cool we tried to fit it into every conversation (as in "that new Three Dog Night song upended my weltanschauung").  So, too, with paradigm shift.  Pretty soon, every time someone launched a new product, reorganized a department, or entered a new market, they were shifting paradigms.  It got to be silly.

Crossing the chasm,” itself a highly useful concept, became so clich├ęd by 2004 that I had a Board member once tell me I’d be fired if I ever blamed a missed budget on not being able to “cross the chasm.”  (He’d heard that excuse in his last three board meetings.)  At that very moment I struck the phrase forever from my business vocabulary.

In my early years we were always sticking to the knitting.  Then I was working to improve my business from good to great.  Recently, as you know, everything wanted to be free (making it, I might add, very difficult to make budget).  And it's extraordinarily rare when I visit a company that I don't hear at least one tech guy described as a genius, or a rock star
Today, lean and lean start-up are headed the way of the paradigm shift.  They are used everywhere ad nauseum and, most recently, are now applied every time a half-baked product gets rejected by the market.

A month ago my alma mater informed me that the “Lean Start-up Changes Everything”; I have not had my weltanschauung so disrupted since Three Dog Night.  The truth is, like all good ideas, the lean start-up recipe is right for some businesses in some markets some of the time.  (Ask a medical device manufacturer to place a “minimum viable product” with doctors and patients, or a consumer goods company to launch a “pretty good cereal” with shoppers.)  In the old days we called the lean start-up a "ready, fire, aim" strategy.  

Likewise, disrupt has now taken the place of most every action verb in business.  We used to launch a service; now we disrupt a market.  A recent grad once wanted to do marketing, or finance, or write code, or maybe build a cool product; now he or she wants to disrupt an industry.  Every time we redesign a website we are being disruptive.  Every time we meet in convention we disrupt.  Truly, we might give this poor word a rest. 

And then, of course, there is the most pretentious word in business: serial.  I am not just an entrepreneur, I am a serial entrepreneur.  (Not just an angel, mind you, an archangel.)

Let me ask you this: What activities come to mind when you think "serial"?  Serial philanderer?  Serial arsonist?  Serial killer?

And now: Serial entrepreneur.

If a pilot has 1,000 successful flights, perfect take-off and landing each time, and works for five airlines plus the military during his career, he is just a pilot.  If a teacher teaches every day for 40 years in six school districts, he is still only a teacher.  But, if I am involved in just two start-ups, at almost any level, I can claim the title of serial entrepreneur. The start-ups don’t even have to be successful—in fact, the fastest way to serialhood is a failure or two.

It was a bad day when “entrepreneur” went from being an occasional activity (as Schumpeter imagined) to a full-blown, 24x7, LinkedIn occupation.  But it became an unpleasant paradigm shift when it went serial.