I’ve seen both ends of entrepreneurialism, from the idealistic, optimistic, intoxicating beginning to the transformation that occurs when the hoped-for “exit strategy” is accomplished, and everything in between. It’s that long in-between that often goes unheralded when academic tomes are written, autobiographies penned and talk-show hosts courted, by those same entrepreneurs.
Decades can elapse in the intervening period between the inception and the ending of the adventure. What happens during that long trek can cause the entrepreneur to suffer from delusions and hallucinations. Not the kind you’d expect from a psychotropic succulent, mind you, but flights from what you and I would call reality nonetheless. It happens when the entrepreneur behaves in a manner that is inconsistent with the evidence. One type of such delusions is when the entrepreneur mistakes the finish line for a cliff.
Here’s how to elicit the hallucination: take a few brilliant, hard-working people who have decided to launch the adventure of building a business, have them work for many years through tough times and never enough money, then have them reach a point of building value that someone else sees it and needs it, and a “liquidity event” becomes possible. This is often the goal that the founders envisioned those many years ago. But after so much hard work and false summits, disappointments, raised and dashed hopes, something changes in the hearts and minds of the founders. They lose the ability to see clearly that the objective they envisioned for so long is right there in front of them. And they begin to act in ways that increase the chances that the exit door gets shut before they can go through it.
One such example is happening right now, as I write this. I’m watching the founders of a company make decisions and communicate in ways that reduce the chances that they will complete the deal that has been placed on the table in front of them. The offer is the best they could ever hope for, and it will ensure that the great invention they created will not only survive, it will proliferate around the world as one of the most important products introduced in the last thirty years. Their names will be legend in that industry, their retirements secure and their legacy will be hundreds of new careers built out of the nothingness that is the entrepreneur’s imagination. If they can do what it takes to consummate the agreement.
I try to imagine what the motivation could be for destroying their own chances for the success they say they wanted. One possible answer is that they don’t know how to be successful. What they know how to do is work long and hard. They know how to scrape by when money is tight and every other phone call is from a supplier or a creditor. They know how to take each day as its own universe, methodically going through the action item list, checking off each one, week after week, month after month. They know how to explain the fact that their projections are always wrong and the time it takes to get things done is always three times as long as they expect. They know how to live with disappointment. But they don’t know how to live with accomplishing what they said they would. What will they do after the deal is done? There will be operating capital to fund growth, instead of a maxed out bank line. There will be staff to support the product around the world, instead of a handful of over-worked field engineers who live more on airplanes than on the ground. There will be sales and marketing channels opened up that will spread the work load of developing relationships, responding to leads and submitting proposals. There will be credibility afforded their tiny company since it will be part of a global corporation that has been around for more than a century, well-respected and firmly established. They don’t know how to live in that kind of world.
So they subconsciously sabotage their chances for living in that world of success. It’s too strange and frightening. Isn’t it ironic that the word “founder” can mean both creation and destruction?