There are a lot of things that go into starting a business – fearlessness, dedication, risk-taking, money and perhaps a bit of stupidity. But the number one characteristic that seems to be common in all entrepreneurs is their adaptability – their willingness to change plans and go in a different direction when needed.
In her blog today, Penelope Trunk wrote that it really isn’t possible to know if your idea for a start-up is any good. I agree with her. And I believe that this is the reason that founders need to be so adaptable. If you don’t know if an idea is any good before you start, it’s highly possible that along the way you might find out that it isn’t that good. Or that there is a better idea. If that happens (and it often does), you need to be willing to make a change, and quickly. “Founders need to be adaptable,” says Jessica Livingston, author of the book Founders at Work. “Not only because it takes a certain level of mental flexibility to understand what users want, but because the plan will probably change. People think that startups grow out of some brilliant initial idea like a plant from a seed. But almost all the founders I interviewed changed their ideas as they developed them.”
Yesterday, Chris came home from work and told me that his company received their third FDA approval. This is a big deal in the medical device industry because it’s the point when a company can start marketing and selling its products (i.e. making money). I started to congratulate him but he told me not to bother. It turns out that after they had sent the application for approval, the designers discovered a flaw, so they are already working on version 2 of this device. Although they got the approval, the product is essentially going to be tossed out. He didn’t seem too phased. “Things change,” he said.
This flexibility is something that I’m working on as a key component of my start-up. I have to be flexible since a core part of my business model is starting a lot of businesses at the same time, some of which will not go as planned. At my first board meeting, one of the board members suggested that I start a software company as one of my launches for Pure Incubation. This wasn’t one of the original plans, but it seems like a good idea – possibly even a great idea (no one knows for sure yet!) – so I’m going to be flexible and incorporate that business idea.
Here are some other stories from the people profiled in the book Founders at Work:
“Over the years, I’ve learned that the first idea that you have is irrelevant. It’s just a catalyst for you to get started. Then you figure out what’s wrong with it and you go through phases of denial, panic, regret. And then you finally have a better idea and the second idea is always the important one.” – Arthur von Hoff, cofounder, Marimba
“We built this app for the Palm Pilot, which was getting pretty good growth. We were getting 300 users a day. Then we built a demo for the website, which was functional, so you could do everything on the website that you could do on a Palm Pilot, except the website was unsexy and we really didn’t care. It was like, ‘Go to the website and download the Palm Pilot version. It’s really cool.’…Sometime by early 2000, we realized that all these people were trying to use the website for transactions, and the growth of that was actually more impressive than the growth of the handheld device, which was inexplicable because the handheld device one was cool and the website was just a demo…We had the moment of epiphany, and for the next 12 months just iterated like crazy on the website version of the product, which is today’s PayPal.” – Max Levchin, cofounder, PayPal
“I came up with the idea to do a simple-to-install database at the back end. Then you’d use the browser as the front end. It could store any piece of information at the back, but the browser would be used to display it…So I wrote a business plan and didn’t know what to do with it…I knew Jack and knew that he was a great software and hardware engineer. So I shared this idea with him…While we were putting the business plan…together and were working at FirePower Systems, they installed a firewall around our corporate intranet that prevented us from dialing out to our personal email accounts. I had an account at Stanford and Jack had one at AOL, so we would dial out and email each other. but we couldn’t do that anymore because the firewall prevented us from accessing our personal accounts. So we ended up exchanging information on floppy disks and on physical pieces of paper. That’s when it occurred to us, ‘Wait a minute, we can access any website in the world through a web browser. If we made email available through the web browser, that would solve our problem.’ ” – Sabeer Bhatia, cofounder, Hotmail
“Entrepreneurs have to keep adjusting to…everything’s changing, everything’s dynamic, and you get this idea and you get another idea and this doesn’t work out and you have to replace it with something else. Time is always critical because somebody might beat you to the punch.” – Steve Wozniak, cofounder, Apple Computer
“[Our original idea was not just a DVR.] It was this flamboyant, home server network thing. And we actually got funded based on that. When we got into the technology, we realized, ‘Hey, network technology isn’t quite there yet. The idea of a server is fine, but how do you explain it to the average consumer?’ We learned very quickly that this was going to be a hard sell and a hard thing technologically…We went back to the VCs and said, ‘Thank you very much for the money. We’ve changed our minds. Here’s what we’re going to do and here’s why we think it’s a good idea.’ ” – Mike Ramsay, cofounder, TiVo
“Flickr was kind of a lark. It was a side project that we built while we were in the process of building Game Neverending. The back-end development of the game fell really far behind the front-end development, and so while we were waiting for the back end to catch up – being restless hacker types – we built this sort of instant messenger application in which you could form little communities and share objects. And we just added the ability to share photographs. So Flickr started off as a feature…Eventually, we had to put the game on hold and stop development on it because Flickr was really taking off.” -Caterina Fake, cofounder, Flickr
What do you think? What’s the most important personality trait of an entrepreneur?