By Frank J. Rich
My work helping technology companies find effective positioning in their marketplace brought my company many “start-up” organizations as clients. They are an exciting lot – full of the energy required to get an enterprise off the ground and market ready, the commitment necessary to the investment in dollars and blood that are common to them (sweat equity), and the enthusiasm and attitude that informs value and productive ends.
Born of the natural inclinations in us to do our best (actualization), they march steadfastly forward without the usual fear of risk, carrying their dreams with them, not depending on others for their fulfillment. Formed of the brightest and the best in their field, start-ups are a model of what is purely “good” about capitalism – the view that “nothing comes from nothing” (ex nihilo, nihil fit). A collection of individuals organized for a common purpose, the desire to express a better way to accomplish something is their driving force – a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) that quickly and easily orders the doings of our lives, an MP3 Player to encourage our moods, flash memory to hurdle the limitations and size of magnetic drives, a “computer for the rest of us” with an apple at its core. While the VC (Venture Capitalists) who invariably fund these newbies, may be cursed of short-term goals, most start-up founders are focused on the triple play that drives success – satisfy a need, solve a problem, add value, and the promise of a long-term run at it.
They are people who have left the security of promising careers as leaders and directors of established organizations to risk life, limb, and often-happy homes, for the chance to hit a home run – to create something of real value to others. They prove the dictum that men and women of substance are made of striving, suffering, and sacrifice. They are a rarified group secure in the knowledge that “everything” about tomorrow… happens today!
To date, I have worked with more than 250 such organizations – those for profit and not-for-profit. Little else distinguished them, at least at this incipient stage in their development. In the process, I developed an acute sense for the “markings” of successful ventures. It may be instructive to note that most organizations – the new and the toothy – do not succeed. Surveys, such as Booz, Allen’s annual measure of the dysfunction in companies, decry the ills that wear a footpath to Boot Hill by their insidious, habitual tracking. At its root are the twin demons of procrastination and little self-investment. The compensation in this view is a defining conclusion about most organizations – “they don’t die; they commit suicide.” If you’re among those who “put things off” and/or “invest” very little in themselves, you would do well to confront the issues in the title of this article.
During his career as head of the Chevrolet Division of GM, and later as President of GM after the fabled Alfred B. Sloan’s tenure, Bill Knudsen enjoyed extraordinary success in raising both organizations to new heights. A Danish immigrant who arrived in the US in 1900, Bill Knudsen saw himself and the other members of his team as ordinary people. He was a poor planner in his own view, with a certain “way.” “It is rare that one finds a man of your strength and ability so entirely free from prejudice and jealousy and so willing to cooperate with others. … Your patience in straightening out Chevrolet’s troubles has been wonderful,” offered GM director Pierre S. duPont on Knudsen’s acceptance as general manager of Chevrolet in 1922. The best business management books ever written could not have better summed up the principles and practices that inform achievement.
Recently, I had a meeting with a group at a client company that challenged everything good managers stand for. We met to discuss the very principle in the title of this article, that is, the life expectancy of organizations. Put another way: what if tomorrow was available to us only by what we accomplished today? While the idea of “planning” is firmly imbedded in opportunity, everything about tomorrow happens today. By their confrontation with these principles they revealed themselves for an apparent unwillingness – a death knell for employees and employers alike.
Dick Lyle, famed business author and speaker, wrote a book entitled Four Winning Habits. In it he offers another view of the principle above. He says that we must strive to “solve problems in advance.” I like it for the good sense it has made to me all of my life. In fact, if you should see a well-groomed and tidy suit walking down the street talking to himself, it just might be me … practicing tomorrow’s behavior, today.