Profile of a Lean Startup Entrepreneur

Myth of The Visionary Entrepreneur

Ask someone to define a startup entrepreneur and they will probably describe a hybrid of Donald Trump, Isaac Newton, and a Tom Cruise action character: bold, smooth, visionary, hard-working, charismatic, and eccentric.

The guy with the million-dollar idea who charms investors with his “better mousetrap” while leaving the rest of us wondering, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

This persona – which I’ll call “The Visionary” – is so ingrained into American culture that we don’t even question it. In a recent episode of This American Life called (no joke) Million Dollar Idea Ira Glass reinforces this stereotype.

The Visionary meme isn’t just limited to pop culture; it is accepted as mantra in the minds of investors as well:

Genetic or not, there are certain classic characteristics of the entrepreneur. The most important of these are visionary optimism…tremendous confidence…huge passion for an idea…and a desire to change the game, so much that it changes the world. [emphasis mine].

Mastering the VC Game, Jeffrey Bussgame

Some of The Visionary’s attributes (persistence, intelligence, etc.) are necessary for success in anything. Of course I don’t dispute them.

But how about those that emphasize extreme optimism and confidence (bordering on egomania) and an wavering belief in an idea? Are these the “most important” characteristics of entrepreneurship?

I’m not attacking Glass or Bussgame – they are among the best in the world at what they do and I’m just as guilty of perpetuating this myth. I love This American Life and highly recommend Bussgame’s book. I just have problems with this common depiction of entrepreneurship and our society is replete with examples.

Survivorship Bias

Visionary success stories are almost always gathered through survivorship bias.

Most stories about The Visionary use successful entrepreneurs as examples: just do what The Visionary did to achieve success and you’ll be successful too!

How about those who followed the Visionary strategy and failed repeatedly?

How many other Visionaries had ideas on massive social movements that seemed crazy as Twitter and actually turned out to be … well … crazy?

Advocating a strategy and only describing the winners is like asking someone who just won the lottery for his secret – entertaining, perhaps, but it doesn’t teach you anything.

It Wastes Time and Money

The investors I know who have been through the highs and lows, good and bad times of the past 15 years don’t embrace visions or ideas. They bet on teams who can learn, adapt, and solve problems.

We’ve got too few resources, too few entrepreneurs, and too many problems to waste time embracing myths.

It Teaches the Wrong Lessons

Finally, I think The Visionary characterization masks more important skills and tactics of successful entrepreneurs and investors.

The most successful entrepreneurs and investors (like Jeffrey Bussgang) have critical skills developed through years of hard work and failure – skills that are overlooked when success is characterized in flat stereotypes.

Too many startups are failing for bad reasons.

-Eric Ries

Amen.

Fortunately the Lean Startup movement is changing all of this – fast. Lean Startup entrepreneurs are challenging The Visionary stereotypes with hard, cold evidence to figure out what works.

Profile of the Lean Startup Entrepreneur

Eric Ries has characterized The Lean Startup Movement as the basis for thinking of entrepreneurship as a management science. I think he’s dead on.

If we’re right, the future of entrepreneurship looks nothing like The Visionary persona.

I’ve had a chance help dozens of startups over the past year in my EIR capacity think through their Customer Development process. The people who most quickly and effectively adopt these strategies display the following characteristics:

Curious

Steve Blank describes an entrepreneur as someone whose job is to “search for a repeatable and scalable business model”. This description implies a curiosity about the world and an interest in discovering problems and solutions.

A Listener

Sorry, Donald Trump. Finding problems to solve profitably means a lot of time listening to customers and a lot less time telling the world how you’re going to bend it to your will.

Skeptical

Yep, you read that correctly. By “skeptic” I don’t mean “cynic”. Skeptics look for evidence and are suspicious of ideas that don’t have any. Lean startup entrepreneurs start with hypotheses of customer needs and search for evidence.

Risk Averse

Risk isn’t the thrilling part of innovation – it is the reason innovation fails.

Lean Startup entrepreneurs eschew waste. Waste means lost time, lost money, more pain, and fewer opportunities to discover the truth. Risk can’t be eliminated but placing smart bets can mitigate it.

And…
…optimism, determination, and intelligence to succeed in anything.

The Lean Startup Entrepreneur looks like a combination of salesman and scientist. The people attending Lean Startup Meetups and participating online in the Lean Startup Circle Google group display these type of attributes and look nothing like the Visionary.

And, unfortunately for our world with its many problems, people with all of these characteristics are probably even rarer than Visionaries.

Don’t believe me? How many people do you know who are optimistic AND skeptical? Passionate AND a good listener?

Over the next 10 years I believe we’ll be bidding adeui to The Visionary. He has entertained us, made a few people incredibly wealthy, and built some fabulous companies. But his example also caused a lot of people to waste a lot of money and time trying to mimic him.

Good riddance, I say.

12 Comments

  1. kevindewalt September 16, 2010 at 3:21 pm #

    Latest blog post: “Profile of a #leanstartup entrepreneur”, http://kevindewalt.com/blog/2010/09/16/p

  2. Brant September 16, 2010 at 10:42 am #

    Nice, Kevin. “What makes an entrepreneur” was a hot topic over the summer. I am amused that even some advocates of Lean and skepticism succumb to the urge to create “velvet rope” narratives based on dubious academic studies or worse, personal experience; i.e., “I’m an entrepreneur and you’re not.”

  3. Mark Salsberry September 16, 2010 at 11:49 am #

    Good article. Good example of the difference between what people want to believe (Hollywood stereotype) and what it actually takes (roll up your sleeves). I am the ever-optimistic entrepreneur, yet realize the need to question my own assumptions. It’s easy to recognize, but still difficult to train myself to do. It also helps to surround yourself with skeptics [thanks, Jonathan H!].

  4. Giff September 17, 2010 at 8:06 am #

    Nice Kevin. I believe you are right. Of course one also needs the charisma to attract and lead talent. I wonder where most investors come down on this. They influence the myth/reality by choosing who to back.

    • Dixon September 17, 2010 at 5:25 pm #

      “Of course one also needs the charisma to attract and lead talent.”

      I think the contradiction you are pointing out is really just a consequence of the buzzwords that are over used to describe entrepreneurs. A “visionary entrepreneur” is not an entrepreneur with a vision. I think the term describes an entrepreneur who disrupted a large market segment (or who was in the right place at the right time when the market segment went through a fundamental change). But, even an entrepreneur who is trying to make an incremental improvement to an existing market, will need to communicate his vision for success and get his team – and customers – to buy into it.

      I think you’ve pointed out a trick that the language we use plays on us. We understand the meaning of singular words (i.e. vision and leadership). But the emergent meaning of combining these is vastly different than the sum of it’s parts.

  5. Stevewa September 17, 2010 at 3:54 pm #

    How can you not be cynical after talking to a bunch of customers who don’t even know what their problem is? Jeez. Optimism is hard when there’s no signs of life on the planet. Ha ha. Frak da trump and Hollywood.

  6. Andy @ sales++ September 20, 2010 at 11:17 am #

    Nice article, some very good points. Not many developers match all of these characteristics, but the few that do are the most valuable to any company.

  7. Barbara Logan September 21, 2010 at 8:57 am #

    Great, Kevin. I so agree. Sometimes “visionary” and “extreme confidence and optimism” can even become just euphemistic excuses for indulging “out of touch” and pig-headed. Especially in the wild west of the start-up world. Your comments are actually so encouraging, because we see that success is not just available to a gifted few, but really pretty much any of us. Endurance through hard-knocks and multiple failures, tenacity, and oft-unapparent things like those Gladwell points out (eg, 10,000 hours) are important factors too, and many are learnable, adaptable, or accessible to lots of us. Thanks!

  8. Steve November 28, 2010 at 1:16 pm #

    Having survived two startups in Africa I can say that these are indeed vital qualities for any business to survive – at least its always been in Africa; where investment in tech is very thin on the ground and the majority are self funded. I remember having to reverse engineer any product we found so that we could accelerate understanding and reduce time to market of our own solutions as investing in any US/EU API or product was just not feasible. @mitchellangelo

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