The Heart of an Entrepreneur, Ch. 1

There was a moment that I will always remem­ber from my child­hood, one that rep­re­sents some nature-nurture shap­ing that had already hap­pened, and this “model scene”, as psy­chol­o­gists call it, is at the core of who I am today.

cg-overlay-imgI was about 12 years old and sit­ting at my father’s big wooden desk in the base­ment. He had set up a sort of office at a cor­ner of the painted con­crete walls, com­plete with a fil­ing cab­i­net or two, unfin­ished ply­wood book­shelves, a type­writer (man­ual) and an old Wol­len­sak reel-to-reel tape recorder. The desk was a seven-drawer model with a match­ing leather chair with a swivel and wheels.

It was a nice lit­tle setup for a 12 year old. My dad didn’t use it much, so I would come down there to type my papers for school. The base­ment was also a cool place to be, both in terms of relief from the Illi­nois cli­mate (mostly too hot and humid or too cold and dry) and from, well, the rest of my family.

A busi­ness­man was born

And in that moment, sit­ting in that big leather swivel chair, I real­ized that I wanted to be a busi­ness­man. I wanted to spend my life at that desk, or one like it.

I sit typ­ing this in my upstairs office with a big wooden table (the mod­ern ver­sion of the big wooden desk now that we are so much more paper­less), typ­ing on my mod­ern type­writer watch­ing my words form on the screen in the Word­Press edi­tor (the mod­ern paper, but iron­i­cally the font is a type­writer font) I real­ize that I’m liv­ing that dream, that inspiration.

It’s a bit more amaz­ing because my par­ents were pro­fes­sors, not in any way involved in busi­ness.  Even more sur­pris­ing, given that they were lib­eral eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sors, big fans of the social­ist labor move­ment in the early and mid-20th cen­tury (read: union­iza­tion), and they essen­tially viewed busi­ness peo­ple as “fat cats”, greedy, money-grubbing, Scrooge-like tyrants, the exis­tence of whom’s soul was a valid ques­tion. To be fair, this was in fash­ion back then, both in acad­e­mia and in soci­ety (think: Death of a Sales­man.)  Not some­thing that their son should aspire to, in other words.

Yet at that moment I knew it as a truth: I was going to be a busi­ness­man. And that’s what I’ve spent my life doing.  It hap­pened halt­ingly, much of it fit­fully, as there was some part of me that always ques­tioned whether it was okay for me to do. I tried to be a lot of things over the 40 years between then and today, but when­ever I found some­thing that I liked doing, I always wanted to make a busi­ness out of it.

I’ll never know where that came from, that desire to make busi­nesses, nor how it sur­vived despite the dis­cour­age­ment that I received from my par­ents. I spent a lot of my life feel­ing like I needed to apol­o­gize for even want­ing to start a busi­ness. So until just recently I never noticed how it hap­pened within me, the birth of a new ven­ture inside my head and my heart.

curi­ous george goes to school

It wasn’t like I didn’t try to fig­ure it out. After build­ing PDIT, a 60+ per­son Inc. 500 Award–win­ning con­sul­tancy, with two fellow-consultants in the 1990’s, I sold my shares and enrolled in USC’s Entre­pre­neur MBA pro­gram. My stated goal was “To fig­ure out how THAT hap­pened — how we actu­ally built a com­pany!” My BS was in Indus­trial Engi­neer­ing and Com­puter Sci­ence, so I had never really stud­ied business.

In fact it was worse than that: as an under­grad, I took one busi­ness class in the busi­ness school at my parent’s uni­ver­sity, a part of the uni­ver­sity that they lit­er­ally sniffed at. I dropped that class after I got a D on a quiz because of one ques­tion that I will never forget:

Ques­tion: True or false, a Bureau­cracy is an inef­fec­tive form of orga­ni­za­tional structure?

I said True, and the pro­fes­sor said False — when I asked why, he said that while every­body would agree that a Bureau­cracy was inef­fi­cient, it was not inef­fec­tive. At that moment in 1977, I fig­ured busi­ness wasn’t for me. I felt stu­pid. I dropped the class and switched to Medieval Stud­ies and Phi­los­o­phy.  Obvi­ously that didn’t work out either.

Twenty years later, I was at USC finally going to busi­ness school. It took me that long to fig­ure out what I had real­ized 25 years ear­lier sit­ting at my father’s desk — I wanted to be a busi­ness­man, an entrepreneur.

In grad school, one of the top­ics that fas­ci­nated me the most was orga­ni­za­tional the­ory. My favorite book dur­ing those two years at USC was The Nature of the Firm, writ­ten by Nobel Lau­re­ate Ronald Coase.  The book is essen­tially a bril­liant essay that explores why com­pa­nies (firms, orga­ni­za­tions) are “shaped” and man­aged the way that they are. I look back at this now and ask myself whether that monot­o­nous, bor­ing busi­ness pro­fes­sor in 1977 planted a seed in me with that ques­tion. Was it an “inflec­tion point” in my life?

Author Dave Logan, whose excel­lent book Tribal Lead­er­ship I highly rec­om­mend, has a (free) 21-day lead­er­ship train­ing pro­gram that includes an inflec­tion point exer­cise. I did the exer­cise the other day and it con­nected a few more dots for me. I’ve heard and read about entre­pre­neurs need­ing pas­sion regard­ing the prob­lem that their ven­ture is solv­ing. In my first startup, I think I was sim­ply pas­sion­ate about HAVING a ven­ture, so maybe that’s another ver­sion of it.

With­out the energy and drive that the pas­sion pro­vides, entre­pre­neur­ship is pretty hard to sus­tain. But where does pas­sion come from? Where is the muse that inspires and tick­les. I got a glimpse of mine when I did the exer­cise.   Thanks, Dave Logan for point­ing out that many times the hard­est moments inspire the great­est things in us.

Down and Out in Topanga, circa 2009

Come spring of 2009, ten years after grad school, I had been lead­ing the LA office of the mar­ket­ing agency Sapi­ent­Ni­tro for a cou­ple of years.  Over the course of the next few months, with the reces­sion and as we saw client bud­gets recede, the bad news came to me and some other directors.

I was pretty upset at being laid off. I had hit my num­bers — no I had blown my num­bers out of the water — in 2008 and had just closed a $1MM plus deal and had another $4MM in the pipe for 2009.  I felt this was an injus­tice, a vio­la­tion of how the game should be played, how I should be treated. There were a lot of other things that I wrapped into it, as one can do, find­ing fault in every­thing that the orga­ni­za­tion had done to, or not done for me.

I decided to write a book on how man­age­ment should work. I wanted it to be a really good book. One that you could pick up and quickly under­stand how an orga­ni­za­tion should really work, and how peo­ple should work with each other. I didn’t know what the book needed to say, but I also knew that none of the 200+ busi­ness books I had read dur­ing and since busi­ness school really pro­vided this information.

I was inspired. Inspired by some peo­ple who had just laid me off. I was pissed off — what they did was wrong, I told myself. And I was inspired.

out of the ashes

So I read a lot. I knew that there was an answer somewhere…probably in bits and pieces, but I felt it was my job to put it together. The next year was a highly pro­cre­ative period for me. I did a lot of con­sult­ing on agency projects, strat­egy and prod­uct devel­op­ment, and in 2010 I licensed and launched a prod­uct called Snoot! Nasal Cleanser. Snoot is a great prod­uct and it helps with some­thing else that I am pas­sion­ate about, the mis­ery of chronic sinusi­tis.  These were all fun, but none of them felt like a fit for me.  I kept moving.

By mid-2010 I was work­ing at an agency again, but there was some­thing that I had left unfin­ished.  I watched how they oper­ated and saw much the same thing I had seen else­where.  That ques­tion nagged me: How SHOULD you run an agency?

In late 2010, I man­aged a cou­ple of the agency’s projects and tried out some of the tech­niques that I had stud­ied. I had always been a very good project man­ager, but I didn’t really like being one — I hated sta­tus meet­ings, Microsoft Project, and every­thing that went with it. The job itself was dis­mal, we typ­i­cally tracked a dis­as­ter in progress, and rarely could really make a dif­fer­ence until there was a major cri­sis. You dealt with a lot of unhappy peo­ple all of the time. But these new projects turned out dif­fer­ently. Some of these tech­niques were working…working really well. And frankly, I was excited beyond belief. My heart still speeds up when I recount this to peo­ple, and even typ­ing it here.

a com­pany is born

So I did what an entre­pre­neur does: I com­mit­ted myself to this. I started con­sult­ing on how to run agency projects bet­ter.  I had a chance to refine my thoughts on what could work bet­ter.  At the core of my ideas was a way to use Agile (a method for man­ag­ing soft­ware projects) that would work for Agencies…the com­pany name? Agen­cyAg­ile, of course.

I added a lot more to the meth­ods: Drucker, Senge, Maslow, Mintzberg and a bunch of the old mas­ters that I had first read in grad school. And 30+ years of really great orga­ni­za­tional, cog­ni­tive and behav­ioral research on how peo­ple think, how teams work, and what makes peo­ple happy, drawn from Kah­ne­man, Logan, Sea­gal and Haidt, to name a few.

What does my new com­pany do?  We help agen­cies trans­form from the industry’s hier­ar­chi­cal man­age­ment model, replac­ing it with a team-based orga­ni­za­tion struc­ture that elim­i­nates or greatly reduces every major oper­a­tional prob­lem that they have.  Their employ­ees love it, and they make more money too.  We help them become “Bet­ter, Faster and Happier.”

We destroy the bureau­cratic model and replace it with some­thing agile, flex­i­ble, empow­er­ing and fun.  And it works.  Really, really well.

Answer: False. A Bureau­cracy is not an effec­tive form of orga­ni­za­tional structure.

This is the cor­rect answer for the indus­try that I now serve: adver­tis­ing and mar­ket­ing agen­cies.  Bureau­cra­cies just don’t com­pete well, nor do they scale well.  In the hang­over of the mid-century anti-business fer­vor, it was fash­ion­able to view the stodgy bureau­cracy as being some­how effec­tive, and some­what accept­able.  We knew then and know now the name itself is a pejo­ra­tive.  And out has taken 50 years for the new man­age­ment sci­ence to take hold.  Agile-based orga­ni­za­tion mod­els eat bureau­cra­cies for lunch.

Sit­ting this morn­ing at my wooden desk, I real­ize what a gift this has all been.  I give thanks to that pro­fes­sor whose name I can­not remem­ber, who inspired me to cre­ate some­thing dif­fer­ent and bet­ter, to think “Noooo, that MUST be wrong!”  And also my appre­ci­a­tion for those at Sapi­ent who decided I didn’t belong there.  They were my teach­ers, my muses.

Share/Bookmark

No, Mr. President, I Did Build It…and That Other Thing Too.

Dear Mr. Pres­i­dent, I’ve seen your com­ments regard­ing who “built” what, review­ing the orig­i­nal footage as well as the footage from a speech by your friend Eliz­a­beth War­ren. I’m sure you’re get­ting a LOT of mail right now, so here is a link in case you want to see a sum­mary. Spoiler alert: there is […]


Remembering Bryan Martin

Twenty years ago, on Feb­ru­ary 1st, 1991, around 6:00 in the evening, vet­eran LAX air traf­fic con­troller Robin Wascher instructed the pilots of the tiny Sky­west com­muter flight 569, car­ry­ing ten pas­sen­gers and two crew to Palm­dale, to enter the run­way and pre­pare for take­off.  Seventy-seven sec­onds later she gave US Air flight 1493, a […]


Why a Website May Be the Last Thing That You Need

This may sound a lit­tle funny com­ing from a guy who works at an agency that makes such beau­ti­ful web­sites.  But it is true.  And once you’ve read this arti­cle, I think that you’ll under­stand why mak­ing great web­sites is not about design, but about under­stand­ing your cus­tomer, the dig­i­tal ecosys­tem that they live in. As […]


Why the Smart Ones Choose Ignorance

You surely know the phrase, “He doesn’t know Jack” or  “He doesn’t know Jack ____” – I’ve left off the last noun, but you know that part too.  And you prob­a­bly know that the antonymic phrase, “He knows Jack” means pretty much the same thing…knowing nothing,…or igno­rance. Most folks wouldn’t really want igno­rance closely attached to their […]


What Happened to Breath Asure? The Big Bad Business of Off-Label OTC Products.

I was speak­ing with a close friend the other day and she men­tioned that the pop­u­lar breath-freshener, Breath Asure, had been “crushed” out of the mar­ket by the big, bad, evil cor­po­rate pharma-mega-corps who had sued the brand into obliv­ion (this may be a slight embell­ish­ment, but fairly true to her intent, I believe.  Update: […]


Check, Please! Gourmet Mag Gets Just Desserts After Losing Its Brand Compass.

Well, the per­ils of re-Branding with­out a License may be appar­ent in October’s announce­ment that Condé-Nast will shut­ter Gourmet mag­a­zine after 60+ years of exis­tence. The mag­a­zine had been attempt­ing a trans­for­ma­tion of sorts over the last year or so, with mul­ti­ple new lay­outs, over­sat­u­rated pho­tog­ra­phy, Mil­lenial and Gen-X mod­els and a strange mix of […]


It’s Our Hope That Will End This Recession

Seems like folks are feel­ing cau­tiously opti­mistic these days, what with the DJIA peek­ing above 10,000 for a few moments this last week and Google, one of the barom­e­ters of the New Econ­omy, back up in the stratos­pheric 500’s.  Dur­ing the far-darker days of almost a year ago a lot of us Amer­i­cans voted for […]


Why Steve Jobs fears Flip Video (maybe more than Zune)

Many have assumed that Steve Jobs pretty much handed tiny Flip Video it’s lunch last week when he announced that Apple would pro­vide the same capa­bil­ity in the new iPod Nano for free. Some might mourn the lit­tle Flip Video as yet another piece of promis­ing Con­sumer Elec­tron­ics Road­kill whose soon-to-be sun-bleached bones will remind […]


Introducing the Apple Effect (Part 1)

The Apple Effect is a cor­po­rate pathol­ogy.  A set of behav­iors that consumer-facing com­pa­nies engage in, largely in response to per­ceiv­ing their prod­uct and mar­ket­ing infe­ri­or­ity when com­pared to Apple.  The Four Key Dri­vers of this suc­cess are very vis­i­ble: The Indus­trial Design of the Apple prod­uct line is strong and reflects a tight integration […]