Thursday, January 19, 2006

Are Great Entrepreneurs Stubborn?

There is a notion floating around the Silicon Valley startup community that successful entrepreneurs are stubborn. The belief is that during the process of building a great company an entrepreneur will face advisors, VCs, customers, team members and general adversity that will all pull him/her in different directions but successful entrepreneurs persevere to stay the course and it is their fundamental stubbornness that allows them to do this. However, I believe that few startups stick rigidly to any plan from idea through liquidity event and the focus on stubbornness as the differentiator between failure and greatness is misguided. Sadly, this myth’s popularity is in part due to its appeal. It is often easier for entrepreneurs to site their stubbornness than it is address a real need for change.

Some would argue that the need for stubbornness is greatest at the early stages because the lack of market validation means the startup plans are least proven and therefore open to the most criticism. However, in the early stages, it is most critical for the startup to at least steer in the right direction and considering the feed back from others is best (and only?) way to objectively sharpen a strategy.

More recently, I’ve heard several sharp people explain that entrepreneurs need to be stubborn, but if they hear the same objections 10 times over, it is probably time to change. This is of course good advice, but I don’t think it squarely hits the nail on the head.

Entrepreneurs do need to have a vision and they need to persevere through adversity to build a great company. However, entrepreneurs need to be able to adapt their visions to market conditions. Few entrepreneurs, other than say Steve Jobs, can build a truly great vision in isolation. So the key is not stubbornness but knowing when to adapt and incorporate. Thus, I believe the key to great entrepreneurship is really knowledge and understanding that transcends both a business problem and technology in order to provide a true solution. Hence, entrepreneurs should focus their time on building deep knowledge of their markets in order to understand when to adapt and when to persevere.

I believe the most successful entrepreneurs are likely also to be the best listeners. Understanding when to adapt is partially related to who’s objection the entrepreneur is considering. Customers will always provide the best advice on the problem and VCs will generally provide the best advice regarding the market opportunity and business model. The entrepreneurs job is take in as much data as possible in order to create a vision that leverages their technology to provide a true solution for the customer that is delivered through a repeatable business model.

The worst case scenario is for an entrepreneur write-off any criticism because the objection comes from someone who doesn’t “get it.” Dealing with the objections of advisors, VCs, customers and team members is the best way to improve a business through market driven feedback. An entrepreneur may decide that particular objection isn’t valid but the best entrepreneurs can explain why they disagree and stubbornness should never be a factor in significant business decisions. Thus, it is the abilities to listen, consider and debate, rather than stubbornness, that allow the entrepreneur to refine knowledge into the wisdom from which all great visions are created.


At March 16, 2008 6:17 PM, Anonymous Mary Davis said...

As an entrepreneur, I've learned to turn stubborness into DETERMINATION! I think it has a better ring to it and a more positive connotation!

~Mary E. Davis, Author
THE ENTREPRENEURIAL MOM: Managing for Success in your home & Your Business

At December 29, 2010 6:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's rather useless to ask whether stubbornness plays a part in entrepreneurship. Stubbornness is ultimately a behavior that is driven by a variety of sources, especially cognitive biases. These cognitive biases range from overconfidence in one's knowledge, to an illusion of control over chance events, to a belief in a law of small numbers.

Such sources of stubbornness are often key to becoming an entrepreneur, but -- more often than not -- will detract from entrepreneurial performance.

For every entrepreneur that claims her success came from her stubbornness, there's another entrepreneur who failed miserably because of it. The difference is that the successful entrepreneurs make it into the news, while failures do not.

In this sense, it's all about having good judgement first, and stubbornness/determination second.

C. Hsieh
Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship


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