Figure out what you’re good at and be who you are.
In strategy courses, we talk a lot about sustainable competitive advantage-what it is that makes your company better than others at doing what it is that you do-in some cases, you may have companies that compete in markets but don’t directly compete against each other-Starbuck’s, for instance, doesn’t sell coffee, it sells an experience, the “third place” which is familiar and homelike, where you have music and comfortable seating, you can have a meeting, but you aren’t distracted by either home or work needs (except when your BlackBerry starts flashing and vibrating at you). This is why they haven’t made a competitive response to McDonald’s. People will choose one over the other, but McDonald’s isn’t going after Starbucks’ core business-the experience.
On the other hand, lots of people go to business school to give them new opportunities in their lives. One of my friends had worked extensively in technology (as had I), and we were looking for a change. We went to speak to our strategy lecturer about it, and he advised us that, strategically, if you were throwing away IT and tech skills in this market, you’d be unwise.
This caused us to look back at ourselves and really try to analyse what it was that we were good at.
I’d already been on my second career-I’d shifted from performing arts and nonprofit entrepreneurship to technology work in Silicon Valley-arguably one of the entrepreneurship centres of the world-certainly for IT companies. I turned down very good, very lucrative jobs building and running data centres, and I started thinking of myself as an entrepreneur rather than a technologist-defining myself my who I was rather than what I did.
Whereas most of my colleagues in IT had focused on a sector-biotech, say, or the Internet, I’d worked almost exclusively for small, growing companies in a wide range of fields-biotech, Internet services, advertising, security, chip design, theatre, event management, consulting, government services, transportation. Where my colleagues argued for clean, elegant design and tight, efficient code, I’d try to look at the big picture, to understand why it was that Marketing made seemingly unreasonable demands, why it was that the executive management would ignore profitable centres while focussing on money-losing businesses, and why Finance would drop critical line-items from our budgets. I certainly did make a lot of unreasonable arguments myself, but I ended up often being the person who made the connections between those groups.
My self-searching provided me with a list of things I was good at:
· Making connections
· Seeing the big picture
· Translation between groups (how you talk to engineers versus salespeople)
· Developing and mentoring
· Strategic direction, in product, marketing, sales, or overall.
· Choosing which details to focus on
All of which adds up to entrepreneur. So I shouldn’t have been too surprised when I was knocked back from the big private equity houses and consulting firms-while they’d have a use for someone like me, they couldn’t see it.
This series is all be tagged “Lessons learned” if you want to read all of them.