The last few days have seen a small firestorm around the question of “are entrepreneurs born or made?” with Fred Wilson, Vivek Wadhwa, Mark Suster, and Coach Wei weighing in. While I think as often happens much of the argument is semantic -do you define entrepreneur to mean the founder of a $1B company, or a small business owner growing her marketing consulting business- there are some core beliefs I have in this area.
First, my credentials. Well, this won’t be a long list. But what I can say is that I was fortunate enough to take Marvin Minksy’s Society of Mind class while at MIT, as well as minoring in cognitive science and the like. While I’m no real expert, I must confess to being a bit surprised to so many tech-folk are so focused on the Hardware and dismissive of the Software.
In systems terms, you could perhaps summarize my view as: while it’s true that a 133MHz Intel 80486 CPU will run a given software program orders of magnitude slower than today’s processors, computer science mathematically demonstrates that it’s equally easy for the software to squander computing resources and reverse this balance. A bad algorithm, mis-management of memory, or simply buggy software can reduce even the shiniest new computer to a frustrating pile of molasses or a Blue Screen of Death.
Yes, of course a certain level of IQ is required to be a successful entrepreneur. Of course an amount of perseverance, a modicum of self-discipline, and most of all passion. But do the smartest people -in raw IQ- become the most successful or richest? Do people with “only average” or above-average IQ wallow in mediocrity? As David Wurtz -a smartie Googler- so eloquently puts it in his post “Smart People Should Do Stupid Stuff” this is not the case at all. A minimal level of mental and emotional competence are needed, but beyond that, what strikes a particular person’s passion and unleashes their drive is all up to nurture.
As Mark Suster does so eloquently, I will offer a personal story. When I was in elementary school, I was a distracted, unreliable, unambitious kid. I would lose things constantly, mostly umbrellas. My grades were fine, my heart was not in school. One day in 2nd grade or so, the teacher changed seating arrangements in the class, and I was sat next to Fortuna, a girl with the best grades in the class. All of a sudden I had a challenge on my hands. Something kicked off my competitive spirit, and from that point on I tried to match or beat my desk-mate in all the tests. To my surprise, and probably to my parents’, in a matter of a month I became a focused, dedicated student. I stopped losing umbrellas. And, academically, I never looked back.
As Mark does, I will give you one more story. Years later I was at the MIT Media Lab. I had started there to do a PhD, as every ounce of my soul told me I wanted to work in a research lab like Xerox PARC. After being let down by the pace of innovation in academia, I ended up at a B2B search startup, purportedly to split my time between hacking and Usability. And once again, something happened that changed me forever. We would be sitting in these meetings, and they would go on and on. People would talk slowly, meekly, and little progress was often made. Finally I just started getting fed up. Nothing was getting done, my time was being wasted, and people were just not speaking up. Even though I was pretty new, and had never in my life had a “serious office job” before, I just couldn’t take those excrutiating meetings anymore. So I spoke up. I started talking, speaking my mind, driving decisions, actions, follow-ups. Only much later did I realize that what I had done was learn to fill a leadership void.
You say those qualities were already in me, part of my potential nature, only dormant? I agree 100%. But I feel they are also there in most people, only dormant. And I mean this not at all in a feel-good way, I mean it in a dispassionate, mathematical, Turing machine + evolutionary biology sense.
A friend of mine runs Alliebeans, an Etsy store of cute and practical embroideries. Right now it’s a hobby. But with the right mentor, or if she had another chunk of change in the bank and felt more ready to take a risk, or if she got pissed off about a competitor’s shoddy bags, I believe she would take the plunge and take over the world with her Chocolate Hippos bags. I think everyone has latent passions, although I do think some people’s lend themselves more or less to commercialization, at least in the form of a startup.
These days I am so resilient, competitive, inspiring, perspiring, and decisive -to name a few of Mark’s 12 Entrepreneur DNA characteristics- that people tell me I scare them when playing Taboo due to my intense focus and drive flying through the cards like the tasmanian devil. My whole family equally thinks I’m weirdly intense. Heck, it’s probably the #1 keyword cited by my ex-girlfriends (not always in a good way 😉 ) I was not born this way. I was a quiet, unfocused, distracted person… but circumstances dragged me, kicking and screaming, into the person I am today. And I have seen time and again, there is always a topic, an idea, a cause, a dream that lights up people’s faces and is something they would have equal Leadership, Tenacity, Charisma and Drive for… most people just haven’t been lucky enough to find their latent passion yet.
photo credit: mira66