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4/18/2012
01:37 PM
Patrick Houston
Patrick Houston
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What You Won't Learn From 12 Greatest Entrepreneurs

Our billionaire-obessed society loves to ballyhoo the (rarely) successful mega-startup and its leader. But most of us can't start with a blank slate at our companies.

Fortune magazine streamed into my iPad recently blaring this cover story: "The 12 Greatest Entrepreneurs of Our Time--And What You Can Learn from Them." Fetching headline, for sure. But instructive for most of you? Not so much.

The 12 guys--there are no women--in Fortune's self-proclaimed pantheon arguably belong there. But the problem with ballyhooing the (rarely) successful mega-startup and its leader as a beacon to the rest of us is this: A startup is a startup. It's a tabula rasa. An established company isn't. And if you're reading Fortune, or this column, you probably work for a company that's anything but a blank slate. It's already set in its ways. Much of what our success-obsessed, billionaire-worshipping culture elevates to us just doesn't apply.

Consider:

-- Steve Jobs, No 1. (Surprise!) He was undoubtedly brilliant. Under his reign Apple rose to become the stock market's most valued company. But the lesson Fortune attaches to him leaves me shaking my head. The story cites as Jobs' oft repeated diss of consumer research. But it's easy to write off focus groups when you have a derivative product line. The iPod, a handheld device, came to the market in 2002, six years before the iPod Touch, which preceded the first iPhone, which begat the iPad. Of course you don't need to convene small groups of potential users when you're already got reams of real market data.

-- Bill Gates, No. 2. He played an essential role in the PC revolution and its profound echo effects. But Gates' big takeaway is this: Hire the smartest people you can trust. Then he names as examples Paul Allen, his co-founder, and present Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, the company's 30th employee and its first business manager. But as founder of a startup with a handful of employees, how hard was it for him to surround himself with brilliant and unquestionably loyal colleagues? How many of you have that prerogative? As much as you'd like you can't replace your nitwit of a boss.

-- Narayana Murthy, No. 10. In creating Bangalore-based Infosys, he's credited with launching the era of outsourcing. (Displaced software engineers just love him for that.) His advice? Fortune quotes: "It's all about sacrifice today, hard work, lots of frustration, being away from your family, in the hope that someday you will get adequate returns for that." The hope? Someday? Adequate returns on neglecting your loved ones? Even worse, the words serve to support the main point: Coalesce around people with an "enduring value system?" If Murthy's Law is founded on everlasting principle then the fish stinking up the fridge after three days ought to be just fine, too.

I don't want to squat all over this article. There are some broadly applicable insights from its profiles of FedEx founder Fred Smith (No. 3,) who says you need to rely on front-line managers. And there's wisdom from Starbucks founder Howard Schultz (No. 6), who upon his return instilled financial discipline upon the behemoth his startup had become, and from Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher (No.9,) who insisted on putting customers first and making employees owners too.

My rant has another purpose. It starts to establish the way I'm going to apply critical thinking to the Silicon Valley startup scene for InformationWeek.com. There are indeed things for you to learn, and most certainly relevant to what you do at a place that isn't a startup.

There are relevant new products that need to be on your radar. There are budding new technologies that could affect your company, your market, and your operations. There may even be pioneering methodologies and operating processes sprouting from ventures unencumbered by legacy ways of work.

That's the framework I'll take to the table as I attend the granddaddy of all startup launch events, Demo, this week.

But I'd also like you to tell me. Join my feedback loop. Tell me what you want to know about startups that is relevant, useful, and prescriptive.

Patrick Houston is the co-founder of MediaArchiTechs. He is a former SVP for a new media startup, a GM at Yahoo, and editor-in-chief at CNET.com. He can be reached at patrick.houston@mediaarchitechs.com

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DrParticle
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DrParticle,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/22/2012 | 7:32:58 PM
re: What You Won't Learn From 12 Greatest Entrepreneurs
Interesting argument. For an another point of view, all these case histories are just that: History. One can learn a lot about the traits of these success stories but just copying it never works. As you noted re Starbucks, Southwest, or FedEx, companies that make the employees feel like entrepreneurs succeed the best. In my 30 some years motivating and building groups, I learned that it is best to delegate authority but not responsibility, so that everyone can act as an entrepreneur to the level they are able and willing to. Sadly, delegating responsibility is the norm in the name of "empowerment"
karthickrk
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karthickrk,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/22/2012 | 6:28:41 PM
re: What You Won't Learn From 12 Greatest Entrepreneurs
nice artilce
mtguide1
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mtguide1,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/20/2012 | 8:00:57 PM
re: What You Won't Learn From 12 Greatest Entrepreneurs
As the VP responsible for starting up a private sector cybersecurity business inside a firm that serves the federal intellignece community I look forward to reading more. For a great treatment of the one single failing of most promising tech startups, read "Crossing the Chasm" It's a couple decades old but it's perspective and relevance are unchanged. If you want a great read on 'intraprenuering" Read the Intraprenuer" by Gifford Pinchot III
PatrickH
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PatrickH,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/20/2012 | 4:28:55 PM
re: What You Won't Learn From 12 Greatest Entrepreneurs
We don't disagree! My rant isn't against Steve Jobs or Bill Gates but the culture, and how we in the media too often play to its penchant for simple lessons and silver bullets that are left inadequately questioned. Product development is part science. But as Apple proves it's also still part art. No one can afford to dismiss human intuition and judgement.

I stand by my point: At the same time no one can afford to dismiss research. It serves no one's purpose to take Jobs' classic diss at its face. He didn't need focus groups. He had the market.
mwatterud486
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mwatterud486,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/20/2012 | 1:26:24 PM
re: What You Won't Learn From 12 Greatest Entrepreneurs
IG«÷m going to disagree with you on the first two, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.
I think a big lesson that we can learn from Steve and what everyone at Apple has done, is that you canG«÷t rely just on consumer research. Focus groups, surveys and whatever method you want to use, tell you what people expect based on history, not forward looking. While it doesnG«÷t hurt to know that, the true mark of innovation is delivering more than was expected. Do you need to know your target audience? DEFINITELY. Should their current expectations limit the product or service you provide? DEFINITELY NOT. Innovation is when you are not constrained by what is expected, but deliver something that fills those needs and creates new ones in which you are now the leader. My job is to deliver information to make a personG«÷s job easier. Its not to copy old reports with data from new systems. ItG«÷s to know what data exists, learn what a personG«÷s job is and then give that person tools to do their job better, even if they didnG«÷t know what they needed at the time.
As far as Bill Gates and surrounding himself with brilliant people, the lesson you learn is to seek out that brilliance and innovation where you do work. Become a part of it, join those who are creative, smart, caring and determined to do a better job. That in turn will help you boost your level of performance.
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