[Trailer screenshot, from DVD The Ten Commandments, 50th Anniversary Collection Paramount, 2006]
Harness Thy Ego.
Wait... didn’t many of the most successful startup founders have healthy-to-oversized egos? Remember, this Commandment isn’t “Lose Thy Ego” - or throttle it. Harness it like you would a powerful thoroughbred, so it can carry you across the finish line. A smart entrepreneur makes the most of her or his resources. Make your ego a resource, rather than an impediment – or a land mine.
Of course you’re smart – even brilliant. You’ve envisioned (and maybe partially developed) an idea for a product or service that you think could be a game-changer. Harness your ego to be wise enough to realize that even though you’ve done this on your own to this point, you don’t have all the basic skills and much of the input necessary to make that idea a reality and successfully it bring it to market. Don’t assume you know all you need to know about the development process, sourcing, branding, marketing, and legal issues, or are smart enough to figure them out on your own. Keep in mind the adjunct rule of the First Commandment: early problems or mistakes are usually the most critical, because like the 1-degree shift in the planned train track, they determine the course you will follow and where you will ultimately end up. Take full advantage of mentors and listen. Develop a financial plan that will permit you to seek competent professional advice and counsel early on, and to bring on paid consultants and/or key employees sooner rather than later (but don’t give your birthright away by making sizable equity grants early-on – see The Third Commandment coming up: “Remember Thy Equity To Part With It Wisely”).
If you make a few bad decisions (and you will), don’t overly punish yourself. Acknowledge it, fix it, move on, and be smart enough to accept the invaluable gift that adversity and setbacks offer: wisdom. You won’t be able to do this unless you can harness your ego. For his hubris and egotistical belief that he was smarter than Zeus, Sisyphus was consigned in the underworld to the impossible task of rolling an enchanted boulder up a hill, each day struggling to get it to the top only to have it roll back down. Harness your ego to learn from your mistakes, and alter your course when it just isn’t working.
There is a correlation to being able to harness your ego and being able to think outside the box, a requisite to success in the world of startups. Not being overly distracted by constantly listening to your Id leaves the mind less distracted and more focused to hear the sometimes subtle, nuanced music of genius when it’s most needed.
Steve Aldous was one of the three neighborhood friends/college-boy founders of Megahertz, a Salt Lake City startup I represented over a decade, first as outside legal counsel from inception, then as general counsel through going public on NASDAQ and becoming the worldwide leader in the development, manufacture and distribution of modems for laptops, to ultimate acquisition in 1996 by U.S. Robotics/3Com. I’m not sure I’ve ever met any successful entrepreneur better able to harness his ego than Steve (this is arguably the trait by which most of his colleagues identify him). I remember one day, as the fledgling Megahertz was facing an industry-mandated technology change – the insertable PCMCIA card – that would render all makes and models of modems for laptops basically identical commodities and almost certainly swamp Megahertz with the oversized competition (AT&T, Intel, U.S. Robotics, etc.), Steve was calmly sitting on the floor of his small, sparsely-furnished office clicking the head of a ballpoint pen in-and-out, in-and-out, in-and-out. The problem with the soon-to-be-required PCMIA card form factor was that it was the size of roughly four credit cards stuck together, and the only way modem developers had come up with to allow an RJ11 phone jack to plug into the thin, exposed end of the card was an inelegant, messy “dongle” – wires coming out of the end of the card meeting in a plastic bulb-end that contained an RJ11 receptacle ("dongle" even sounds dorky... or worse).
In the midst of this existential crisis for the company, Steve wasn't listening to his Id, but was quietly clicking the end of his ballpoint pen in-and-out listening to the nuanced music of creation. Megahertz was able to file a patent on its "XJack" PCMCIA modem with a horizontal, retractable RJ11 receptacle that elegantly popped out of the end of the card and back in like a ballpoint pen, and get it into production, so that on the date the PCMCIA card form factor became the mandated technology for plug-and-play laptop peripherals, Megahertz grabbed the vast majority of the worldwide market share at the starting line out of the blocks - and never relinquished it until Intel had given up trying to compete and exited the market, and U.S. Robotics/3Com had acquired Megahertz.
In the tech startup world, "unicorns" - those startups that hit the point of singularity and soar - are those whose ideas, products or services are said to be "disruptive." They destroy the established norm. They are the phoenix that rises out of the chaos and destruction of old ideas. So don't fear, but rather welcome chaos and destruction, even (especially) in your own world and ways of thinking. Without it nothing ever changes. An unharnessed ego can't get past the old ways and noise to do this - and can't easily step into the unknown, where receptivity is everything. (Thanks to Alison J. Robinson for capturing this concept so well.)
[Next in The Ten Commandments of Startups blog series:
The Third Commandment: Remember Thy Equity To Part With It Wisely.]
Copyright 2017 David Eccles Hardy