The Washington Post’s coverage on Sunday of our good client Shenandoah Growers of Harrisonburg affirms their rise from a small, family-owned herb farm to a national leader in flavor-forward produce selling in 23,000 stores, including 16 of the country’s top 20 food retailers. Take a look at this profile in the Washington Post Business section last Friday. The company’s process innovations and tight focus made them a great subject for the Post and an ideal client for our OPENgc legal expertise. Relentless innovation and a profound understanding of the market are the main reasons they have been successful — and among the many reasons we have been glad to serve as their general counsel for several years
Entrepreneurs are fascinating to me. They are tied to the mast by their own natures. They can’t do anything else but what they are doing. They have to create. Even when the most they get from friends, family, and the guy on the next bar seat is a cocked eyebrow, maybe even a yawn.
Most of the entrepreneurs I deal with have long come to terms with the way they are wired. To them, it’s just who they are.
As amazing as they are in their inspiration and knowledge base, they (like all of us) can often use a bit of perspective. As general corporate counsel, that’s a place I can make an impact. It’s my job to scan broadly to see the forest my client is walking through, and keep a closer eye for the falling tree that might hit him on the head.
While I am not a huge believer that something as complex as entrepreneurship can be reduced to lists, there are a few home truths that have emerged for me in doing this over and over again. It’s in the form of advice I could give any person looking to forge a business where there was nothing before.
THINK IN THE ALTERNATIVE.
An entrepreneur needs to be able to analyze a challenge along at least two separate tracks — Pro and Con, Option A and Option B, these assumptions and those assumptions. This is easy for a lawyer to say; it’s what we’re trained to do. (“I did not kill that man! But if I did, this is why I should get off.”) But you know what? We all need to do it from time to time, and someone starting a business from scratch really needs to do it.
Bill is the founder of a company that is developing a family of apps for use within the construction industry. He has always believed that the vertical he needs to focus on as the way into the industry is commercial banking. It’s the insight that got him into this venture and it’s what he’s always assumed would work best. But a friend who’s given good advice on this venture before is telling him that it’s the building trades, people on trucks like plumbers and roofers, who would adopt the product first and then evangelize it within the construction world. Bill’s intuition has done him well in life to this point, and he’s loath to step away from it now. In fact, not just “going with his gut” feels like a rejection of who he is. But Bill needs to be able to mentally take a moment and imagine a world where he’s wrong and his friend is right. He should play out both scenarios – from past first principles, through the present, and into the future. And he should do it without kicking and screaming. It’s a waste of energy.
You won’t lose yourself if you think in parallel. Your brain is big enough to keep control of the whole process and bring everything back in when it’s decision time.
EMBRACE THE LIKELIHOOD SOMEONE ELSE IS DOING THE SAME THING
I’ve sat across the table from several company founders who have given me the look of a deer in the beams of an approaching car when I’ve told them my cursory Google search has shown others are already operating in their space. In these cases the entrepreneurs have gotten so romanced with their own idea, and so deep into the feedback loop created by unexamined assumptions of uniqueness, that they’ve failed to consider that others are already there, or nearby.
There really are few new ideas under the sun. (And I plan to write a piece about why ideas, alone, are pretty worthless.) It only makes sense that in a world full of smart people who, receiving the same inputs and experiencing the same things as you, would hit on your idea.
A new company is the most compelling when it is the first to market to solve a pain – or, better put, the first to (i) solve the pain (ii) with a sustainable business model. It can also be pretty compelling when there are folks already doing what you do, but you have some special angle on it – which may be no more genius than really good branding or deep industry knowledge. You need to know which of these scenarios – commodity or non-commodity – apply to you before you can really have any business entering the marketplace. They are very different realities.
You can’t know any of this before you fall out of love with your idea for a brief moment and survey the landscape with a sharp and skeptical eye.
REALIZE THAT YOU ARE YOUR BEST PRODUCT.
You will probably abandon your original business concept. It’s natural, somewhat inevitable, and completely healthy. It’s not failure. It’s life. We didn’t get dating right the first time we tried it. When we finished a term paper in college it probably was about something different than when we wrote the first word of it. Reflective light technology revealed that Da Vinci first had Mona Lisa looking off to the side, without her half-smile.
The original idea is what gets you into the game. Without the original idea you wouldn’t have had the reason to start the journey. But it will almost certainly not be what your product or service actually turns out to be.
What will still be there is you. Which, to me, means that you are the real product.
Smart early-stage investors know it, or come to know it if they see enough deal flow. There are a lot of ideas, a million slices of the pie of industry – lots of places to do good work. Lots of opportunity. But there are only so many people really who have the persistence and character to think as clearly as spring water while at the same time wading chest-deep in muck. These people are pretty rare.
It’s rare because it’s hard. The born entrepreneur has a leg up, because he really has no choice but to work to become that person. He may not know that’s what he’s doing, but he’s doing it nonetheless.