My dad became an entrepreneur at the age of 52. After a 30-year career in human resources, he left the corporate world and bought a book store, which he and my mom ran for 20 years.
He loved running a small business. And even though he was proud of my burgeoning career in high tech – first as a software engineer and then as a product manager – he kept trying to persuade me to leave the corporate world and start my own business.
I wouldn’t hear of it. I was making good money and doing work that I enjoyed. Chucking my career and going out on my own was much too risky. What if I failed?
Besides, I didn’t know the first thing about running a business. Well, that’s not entirely true. I had earned my MBA, so I knew how to run a business theoretically. But I also knew that running a business requires a lot of skills and experience that I didn’t have. For example, while I excelled at marketing, I sucked at sales. I understood the principals of accounting, finance and other aspects of business, but I wasn’t sure that I could do them well.
I was used to being part of a team, where I used my strengths and other members of the team used their complementary strengths. So I stayed in the corporate world, growing increasingly disenchanted with my inability to make much of a difference in how my company performed.
What I didn’t realize is that many successful startups are not one-man shows, but teams of people who complement each other. Today, few entrepreneurs go it alone; instead, they build or join a team.
Example 1: My Parents
When I talked to my parents during the early years of their book store, my dad would often “talk shop.” My mom, on the other hand, would talk about family stuff. I knew that she was running the book store with my dad, but I tended to think of my dad as the entrepreneur.
The reality is that both of my parents were entrepreneurs. They started the business, and ran it, as a team. Their strengths were complementary. For example, my dad is a numbers guy, whereas my mom is more of a people person. They formulated the strategy for the store together, bouncing ideas off each other and ensuring that they were in lock-step for all major decisions.
They also broadened their team to include the store’s employees. Rather than paying employees just an hourly wage, my parents did profit sharing. The better the store performed, the more pay employees received. Employees were encouraged to offer ideas for improving the store, and many of those ideas were enacted.
As big-box book stores, such as Borders and Barnes & Noble, began to dominate the market, my parents’ store adapted, survived and even grew. Then, as Amazon began to kill off most brick-and-mortar book stores, again, my parents’ store adapted, survived and even grew. The late-in-life entrepreneurs closed the store 11 years ago, when they were ready to retire.
Example 2: Summit Data Communications
About the time that my parents closed their store, I decided to do a startup. I didn’t think of myself as an entrepreneur, however, because I was part of a team.
That team initially consisted of three product managers in Cisco’s Wireless Networking Business Unit. Each of our respective roles at Cisco was diminishing, and we wanted to sink our teeth into something more fulfilling. Ron Seide came up with an excellent idea for a Wi-Fi product, and Andy Winson and I worked to build a business plan around it. Joined by two others, we left Cisco in early 2006 and started Summit Data Communications.
None of us could have done Summit on our own. In fact, getting Summit off the ground required the efforts of all five of us, sometimes independently and sometimes in concert. The synergy of the team was far greater than the sum of the parts. We were all entrepreneurs.
Example 3: The Bit Factory
The solid team at Summit was augmented by the team at the Akron Global Business Accelerator, specifically Terry Martell. I and other senior managers at Summit spent many hours with Terry – sometimes just venting, but usually asking for guidance on a big decision that we needed to make. Terry’s calm demeanor reassured us, and his thoughtful and probing questions helped us figure out the right steps to take.
Now that I am a mentor for The Bit Factory, a relatively new accelerator for software startups, I see first-hand that many startups need the same things that Summit needed in its early days: a solid team with complementary skills, and guidance from outsiders who have walked a similar path before.
Yes, an individual can start and build a successful company, even in the high-tech world. But for every lone ranger who makes it, there are dozens or hundreds who don’t, often because they fail to build a team and seek guidance from experienced entrepreneurs.