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.

Patrick Houston, Contributor

April 18, 2012

4 Min Read

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.


-- 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 [email protected]

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About the Author(s)

Patrick Houston


Patrick Houston is a former SVP for a new media startup, a GM at Yahoo, and editor-in-chief at CNET.com. He is co-founder of MediaArchitechs, which offers strategic product, content and business development consulting to technology-driven media companies. He can be reached at [email protected].

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