I recently wrote about this idea of the “Product Person” and how important it is for startups to have visionary artist DNA in its founding team. They are truly rare and it’s a big reason why so few startups succeed.
But vision is only ONE PART of what it takes to be a great entrepreneur and build a successful company. I’ve spent the last 15 years working with and studying the patterns of great entrepreneurs. There’s a common trait:
Great entrepreneurs begin the journey as passionate artistic visionaries who ignore the counsel of many, and then EVOLVE to become excellent LISTENERS who make refinements based on feedback.
It’s more difficult than it might sound. Consider a familiar example. It took Michelangelo two years to complete David. Imagine if twelve months into it, his patrons and early viewers told him “Good, but not quite right. We’d prefer shorter hair, a slightly smaller nose, and would you mind throwing some pants on him?”
Entrepreneurs all face the same challenge. They leap into the unknown, often ignoring the warnings of trusted advisors and friends, and then are challenged to transform along the way to someone who makes decisions based on feedback from others. The great ones are able to embrace the evolution. They have the courage to be pragmatic about what customers want vs dogmatic about their vision for what the world needs.
Please dont misunderstand me. Great entrepreneurship all starts with Vision. But I believe that great entrepreneurs adapt over time which is why entrepreneurship is both art and science. Each year when I lead our summer fellows through the module on customer engagement, I remind them of the famous quote from Henry Ford: “If I asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” As I’ve learned many times, customers know just what they want until you show them something better. The best entrepreneurs are those stubborn rebels who have the determination to go off and build something that is better than anything the rest of us mortals can imagine, but then have the courage and pragmatism to make refinements based on feedback.
The reality for startups is that if entrepreneurs don’t change from stubborn visionaries to maniacal customer pleasers, they forfeit their most important advantage. Entrepreneurs, because they had the courage to explore, are out in front of their competition. When you are leading the pack, you are able to learn faster than everyone else. And if you listen and adjust accordingly, you can use that information to your advantage and win. I am very fortunate to call Andy Rachleff a close friend and mentor, and he likes to say that all great startups pivot. But it requires a certain level of humility from the entrepreneur that isnt easy. I had a coach once who used to tell us:
“Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”
The great entrepreneurs dont stay married to 100% of the product vision they started with. They have empathy for their users and the humility to adjust their vision based on what others are telling them.
When I make an early stage investment, I often ask myself if I think this team of entrepreneurs will be able to make the switch – from visionary non-listeners to proactive listeners and refiners. It’s hard to know sometimes. But what I’ve learned is that all the great ones do it. So if you are an entrepreneur – what kind are you?
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