The post that follows was originally posted in the June edition of Keystone Edge. It is the first in a continuing series about what we at Ben Franklin Technology Partners and I personally have learned from over 150 incubator/accelerator clients.
Lesson #1: There Are No Lessons.
Beginning a list of lessons that I’ve learned from incubating innovation with “There are no lessons” is a bit risky. If my playful approach doesn’t work, I’ll have a difficult job bringing you back for future posts. But I hope the deeper meaning embedded here sets the tone for the rest of the series.
Tech company founders have a very difficult job. They have a powerful vision of innovation in their mind. They use the art form of company formation to interpret their vision — in the way dancers interpret their visions of music. In launching a company, founders are attempting to describe the future of their industries to prospective customers, investors and employees.
Innovators with a vision are dissatisfied with the world as it currently exists. Like artists, entrepreneurs can’t launch their ventures by starting with someone else’s vision of the world. They aren’t beginning with a previously constructed paradigm of what a business can achieve. They have to work from a blank canvas, and they have to do it with insufficient capital, insufficient industry connections, an insufficient product line, no staff, no IP and no customers! Yet success can be achieved despite these tremendous obstacles.
Entrepreneurs do not get the credit they deserve when it comes to the level of sacrifice they make in exchange for uncertain returns. Like artists obsessed with their work, the sacrifices can be extremely personal. Marriages may suffer and dissolve. Sibling rivalries can evolve into destructive winner-take-all contests. And lifelong-friendships can be tested. But magnificent accomplishments can emerge from a dangerous and difficult entrepreneurial quest.
Those facing these extreme sacrifices want to know the lessons that Zuckerberg or Jobs can teach them, as if there is some secret talisman-like codebook to follow. I’ve had entrepreneurs actually describe their business plan to me in a deliberate imitation of the way that these or other big-name entrepreneurs built their businesses. In those moments in my office, I often suggest to the founder that entrepreneurial lessons are not meant to be followed — they are only meant to be understood.
The word “lesson” tends to imply something that can be learned by rote repetition; like “1 + 1 = 2” or “In a right triangle, the square of the longest side is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.” There are no such lessons in entrepreneurship. Instead of lessons, what you have are more like “gut-informing” experiences. No two situations or ventures are ever, ever the same.
Two firms may have similar product configurations, but different target markets. Or two companies might be targeting the same problem in the marketplace, but with a different sales model. Resources available to two otherwise similar startups can be wildly different, leading to two very different results.
No two companies are the same because company founders are people. How can two companies ever be similar enough to form textbook-like lessons when no two people are the same?
No hard-and-fast lessons can be provided to entrepreneurs because we cannot control the intrinsic and extrinsic phenomena that affect human actions. Experiences across ventures can be somewhat similar, but because startup ventures are so intertwined with their founders and the constantly changing circumstances in which they work, two pieces of venture-art may look similar at a cursory glance but will always be different in their hearts. This first lesson is very important to understanding the second lesson, which we’ll consider in the next edition of Keystone Edge.