Thinking Big with Howard Mann – Part II
Business Turnaround Specialist, CEO Coach, Strategic Advisor, and Author
While the fast moving high-tech/startup world tends to steal the business buzz spotlight, Howard Mann takes his lessons from businesses that execute on the fundamentals. In part two of our interview, discover the hazards of the startup mindset, that owning a business is a privilege, and why it’s so hard to read the label from inside the bottle.
If you didn’t see Part I, read it here!
Coffee mug full? Good. Grab a seat and enjoy some more powerful business enlightenment.
Shawn: The last 10 years have been marked by a rise of “entrepreneurism.” From the phenomenal success of internet startups to master’s programs in entrepreneurship, it seems incredibly en vogue to start a company. And yet I can’t help wonder… do we know what it takes to be an entrepreneur?
Howard: What people consider as an entrepreneur today has totally moved away from what I believe actually makes an entrepreneur. When I hear a VC-funded startup CEO talk about how being an entrepreneur is similar to jumping off a cliff without a parachute (and building one on the way down), I want to scream. IT IS NOTHING LIKE THAT AT ALL! And, there are a dozen more self-congratulatory sayings just like that one…
Shawn: So it’s a little disingenuous…
Howard: It is a warped way of making it all sound dangerous.
Jumping off a cliff is dangerous. Deciding to build a company (especially if you choose to use other people’s money) is not. It IS very tough and success is far from a given. But, you chose the adventure. If death was a possible outcome, Silicon Valley would be a town of business death defiers. It is far from that.
Now, to me, an entrepreneur is someone who wants to bring their idea to the world and build a company that will employ a bunch of people and delight as many customers as it can. It looks to spend at least a little less than it earns so that it can stay in business, hire more people, and delight more customers. There are tens of thousands of companies that make plastic fasteners, garbage bags, steel door handles, and all sorts of “boring” things… and they’ve done it for 10, 20, or 50 years. Are they any less entrepreneurial than a 23 year old who raises $5 million dollars and burns through it all in 2 years?
Many of the entrepreneurs we read about are savvier about raising funds and protecting their equity than they are about building a business. It’s the “Twitter-mixed-wth-Facebook-thrown-into-Pinterest” app that gets a bajillion followers and tons of press…but never actually manages to earn a dime.” That’s not a business, in my book.
Shawn: So, which lessons do you want us to learn from?
Howard: I would prefer we start to celebrate the businesses in the Inc. 500 (or 5,000). I want to hear lessons from an entrepreneur who grew a $250 million building supply business… it doesn’t sound sexy, but they will tell you that it takes determination and a focus on the fundamentals; it’s about guts, resilience, and persistence. These owners will teach you lessons that you can use today and none of them think they are doing the equivalent of jumping off a cliff.
Shawn: You’ve said that, “owning a business is a great thing.” Tell me what you mean by this?
Howard: Following my entrepreneur rant, I do not think the goal of starting a business should be to sell it. But, for most startups (which many are trying to emulate), that is the goal. They are a financial transaction with a business bolted on top.
Owning a business that is profitable, where you can control how it behaves, the decisions it makes, who it hires, and how you want to spend your time, is an incredible privilege. If you have ever been there, I can tell you it is a hard thing to give up. And it is a hard feeling to replace.
When you hear about the company that sold for $1 billion or $100 million it is definitely tempting to think about what life would be like after that type of outcome. I would rather owners focus on making their businesses so healthy and profitable, that they could sell it at any time. But, because they focus on building a great business, they live a great life while running it and enjoy almost every minute of it (nothing is perfect).
Shawn: It sounds like you’re suggesting the journey is as important as the destination…
Howard: If you are going to put the required energy and passion into something, you better be working on enjoying it. To spend five or 10 years grinding through building a business you dislike because someday you may make a windfall and be able to stop is not a very smart way to spend your time.
I spent over three years in total misery running my old freight business until it turned around enough to sell in 2000. I will never get those years back. And the outcome would not have been any different if I had enjoyed the ride instead of hating it. I am fairly certain it would have been better. But we business owners forget how great it is to own a business. That is a shame. I have spent the last 12 years trying to change that for as many business owners as I can, but there is a lot of work to do.
Shawn: I love your metaphor about how hard it is to read the label from inside the bottle. Can you elaborate on the origins of this idea?
Howard: If you own, run, or work within a business for any length of time, your worldview is set from within your business; you are looking out. You become focused on your competitors, personnel issues, and the day to day of running the business. Having been there, it feels comfortable but scary all at the same time. Your business really becomes like your child, and any parent will tell you they are not objective when it comes to how they think and feel about their child. So we lie to ourselves about how our business is doing or why things are not going as well as we hope, dream, or demand. We rationalize losing customers or key staff. We blame the economy or anything else. It’s really a very human behavior; we’re protecting our child and our egos.
The cure, simply enough, is to realize this is a byproduct (or maybe a waste product) of owning a business. And once aware of it, you can figure out how to keep yourself honest. The most important thing I do when starting to work with a business is to simply hold up a mirror to the business owner and executive team. As long as they are brave enough to ask for help (very rare) and are open to hearing the truth (even more rare) incredible things happen very quickly for the business and everyone involved.
Not being able to read a label from inside of a bottle seems to sum up what that feels like perfectly. It hits a raw nerve for business owners, entrepreneurs, and CEOs. Perspective is a powerful weapon. But you need to ask for it.
Shawn: Last question. What maxims do you live by?
Howard: I honestly cannot remember if I heard this somewhere or it evolved over time from my experiences, but there are three thoughts that have served as a pretty good roadmap:
- Don’t lie about who you are.
- Find the awesome in what you do.
- Be relentless about building momentum around it.
If you can do that with real integrity and make sure you have fun along the way, then most things will work out just fine.
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