President Obama's State of the Union address last week gave a big shout-out to entrepreneurs and innovation. As someone who served in Washington and has been an entrepreneur ever since -- minus a brief stint with a large media company -- I found that his message really resonated and was an important acknowledgment of the contribution we entrepreneurs have made and will continue to make in revitalizing our economy.
Each time I've started a company, I've learned a little more about what it means to be an entrepreneur. I've also learned -- as those of you with a similar hankering for start-ups will agree -- that uncharted territory is just that: uncharted. And there is no hard and fast formula for success in an entrepreneurial life.
But there is something I've come to think of as the Entrepreneur's Creed, which has helped me to navigate some fairly choppy waters. Here it is, for your edification and amusement:
The Entrepreneur's Creed
1. Never say die. Never give up on your vision -- there's always a way to make it reality. Tenacity is the single most fundamental requirement for any aspiring entrepreneur.
2. Play to win; don't play not to lose. Successful entrepreneurs play to win, while big, entrenched, innovation-unfriendly companies play not to lose. Don't be afraid to make mistakes - as any investor worth his capital will tell you, we learn more from failure than we do from success.
3. Subscribe to the hourglass theory. Start out wide, with a number of possible go-to-market strategies. Then focus and execute. You can expand again when you have built up momentum with your customer base and established your credibility in the marketplace.
4. Expect to tack your way across the water. The path to success isn't always linear. Tack your way to goals by moving forward, feeling the marketplace, soliciting customer feedback, refining your offering, reacting to new competitors, and making course-corrections as needed. Many a large company stays in the harbor with its spit-shined yacht. Your boat may not look as pretty leaving the port, but at least you'll sail.
5. Always define the room as round. In any discussion, any negotiation, there's always a solution. Regardless of your relationship with the party on the other side of the table and the topic of conversation, as long as the room is round, you'll never get boxed into a corner, and neither will your partner.
6. People, people, people. In real estate, they say, only three things matter: "location, location, and location." When you're building a business, it's all about people. Find people who always show up ready to drive the business. You might have a grade-A idea, but try to execute with a B team and your idea will get demoted. On the other hand, match a B idea with an A team and you'll get grade-A results every time.
7. Hire people smarter than yourself. Recruit and retain a team of people who know more about what they do than you know. Business is like basketball: Every team member has must play well individually and together in order for the team to win. This applies to investors, board members, and advisors, too.
8. Use the R-U-N strategy to develop a customer-focused organization. Retain customers by providing excellent service; make an effort to Upsell existing customers; and keep building the business by bringing in New customers. (Many monopolies forget this last point, and just keep taking new orders from old customers.)
9. Work hard and play hard, but make sure you work in order to play. No matter how much of yourself you put into your work, always make time for family, friends, and outside interests. (One of my proudest moments? Building a treehouse with my two adolescent sons --12 feet off the ground, with a finished roof, porch, windows, bunk beds, and pulley systems - on time and under budget!)
10. It's not about the destination, but the journey. Remember Odysseus on his odyssey. He learned that hard way that while it's great to have goals, it's better to enjoy the ride.
These guiding principles work for me now and have in the past. I'm sure many of you have your own creeds. But as my favorite former president, T-Rex, urged, "The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena."