Entrepreneurial hero worship is dangerous. Idolizing businessmen (and a few women) who’ve made it big is an unavoidable consequence of a culture that elevates succesful people to supernatural heights. And yet we just as quickly glosses over–or ignore–failure. It’s all too human.
From the Ramayana to the Dotcom Bubble, human history is littered with stories of extraordinary individuals who overcame insurmountable odds. There are no more evil demons to slay, nor empires to conquer, which make the stories of moguls like Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Steve Jobs so irresistible. In many ways they’re the last of the great explorers. But you must resist the temptation to chase other people’s dreams.
Here’s three reasons hero worship is toxic to entrepreneurship.
1. Hero myths are false
In Startup Land 98 percent of these stories are false, says Lean Startup author Eric Ries. If people knew the secret lives of startups, there would be no TV shows glorifying the hustle, and a lot less breathless fanboyism. But the hype cycle continues because we want to believe in heroes of the modern age.
The “boy genius phenomenon” is something Ries spoke during a recent interview on the Entreproducer podcast. After two years of blogging anonymously, the IMVU co-founder revealed himself as the author of Startup Lessons Learned, and investors from around Silicon Valley flocked to have him as an advisor to their portfolio companies. When Ries told venture capitalists in search of his advice that he knew what he knew from his mistakes, they were incredulous. They wanted lightning in a bottle. There is none.
2. There’s no such thing as overnight success
It’s easier to believe in an infallible hero than an entrepreneur who hit upon a formula that worked after years of trial and error. Twitter cycled through three CEOs, including a pair of cofounders, before announcing its IPO. The overnight success is so much exciting than the slow and steady process builder. And yet we continue to believe.
Consider the following:
by my late twenties, I stumbled into running my own consulting firm, which sort of became my first startup. we had a lot of ups and downs, and altho we won a few awards and did some interesting and innovative work, after 5-6 years of trials & tribulations and serious questioning of my own ability as an entrepreneur and leader, I barely escaped bankruptcy multiple times and ended up with only a very small and desperate acquisition that was hardly anything to brag about. I didn’t take the job with Microsoft or Intel in the early 90’s, and I didn’t join Yahoo or Netscape in the late 90’s. i had applied to business school at Stanford, but didn’t get in.
Dave McClure wrote the preceding passage. McClure invested 20 years of his life in Silicon Valley before he felt he accomplished anything noteworthy. Dave is a hero to entrepreneurs worldwide, and 500 Startups has done more for international startups than nearly any other organization. There was no accident. Just hard work, and many brushes with death.
3. Success is different for everyone
Max Levchin is someone whose’s entrepreneurial drive I have always admired. I have a feeling he’s tortured by it.
After co-founding PayPal with Musk and Peter Thiel, and selling it to eBay Levchin built Slide. Slide was bought by Google for $228 million, before its products were dismantled, and its teams reassigned to bolster different components of Google+.
A 2007 New York Times article about Levchin neatly encapsulates the corrosive pathology that runs through Silicon Valley.
They are happy to be wealthy, of course, but many of these baby-faced technology tycoons often seem indifferent to the buying power of their money, at least at this stage of their lives. Instead, nearly all of them have chosen to throw themselves back into a start-up, not so much because they want a spectacular new home or a personal jet — though many of them do — but because they are in a competition with themselves and one another.
And it would seem Levchin lost that round. He said Slide would be, “An abject failure,” says investor Davide Weiden, according a Business Insider article called “Sad Max: Google Just Bought Slide For a Measly $228 Million.”
Excuse me if I’m all out of tears. Not to be discouraged by the failure to live up to his expectations, however, Levchin is chairman of Yelp! and his venture HVF (Hard, Valuable + Fun) recently launched Glow, which hopes to point the power of big data at fertility and increase the chances of pregnancy for millions of women.
Walk your own path
You don’t have to help one million women get pregnant to be a hero. Your small efforts to make the world better can and will make a difference in people’s lives. It may make you wealthy, but it probably won’t. That shouldn’t stop you from getting in the game. The world needs entrepreneurs, problem solvers and doers who will never have a statue built in their honor, or a hospital building named after their family.
There are too many problems that need fixing to worry about how you will be remembered. Be happy that you put your shoulder to the wheel and made it budge.
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