Harvard Business School Working Knowledg e Archive

Natural-Born Entrepreneur - Lessons of a Serial Entrepreneur

10/22/2001
Are entrepreneurs born or made? "Both" says Dan Bricklin, the inventor of VisiCalc and creator of four startups. "Sure, training, talent, and that most elusive component, good timing, are essential. But they are not enough. You need to have a true passion for what you're doing." Bricklin describes his formative experiences and lessons he's learned along the way: Know your true talent, don't wait to get started, be frugal, and recognize that you are not your business.

I'd like to suggest a few other lessons that have made all the difference to me.

First, understand your true talent and what value you bring to an endeavor. Too often, entrepreneurs don't value the work others do, and they tend to overestimate their own contributions. Of course, in the early days, when you're simply trying to give birth to an idea, you may not need help from outsiders. But when—make that if—you are able to take the business to the next stage of growth, a different and deeper set of talents may be required. If these aren't your talents, you may need others to step in—for instance, to swim in the details of running the operation, to build strategic partnerships, to set financial priorities, or to make the trains run on time. When you have had to do everything as I have—right down to packing the product, licking the stamps, and hiking to the mailbox—you develop a greater appreciation for the contributions of others, from the office manager to the production manager to the customer service people.

Dan Bricklin
Dan Bricklin

Even today at Trellix, the company I founded to build Internet publishing tools, my title isn't president or chief executive officer. It's chief technology officer, a role I planned to hold from the very beginning. I'm not the most senior person in the company, but I can influence the company's direction in ways that matter to me and make the company better. I'm also the public face of the company, which happens to be a role I enjoy. I appreciate the work others do, how their talents contribute to the business, and what I can learn from them. Still, founders always play a special role. Take Paul Allen, for example. In most people's minds, he's still associated with Microsoft, even though he hasn't worked at the company in years. But sometimes founders have to forgo the CEO title for the sake of the business. Accepting that hard truth is often best for the founders, too.

Quotation
If you start early...both your appetite for creature comforts and your family responsibilities are not likely to be as great, and you will be able to make different choices.
Quotation
—Dan Bricklin

Second, don't wait to get started. Or at least understand that if you wait, you may have less flexibility in making trade­offs between the business and your standard of living. MBA students often ask me whether they should start a business right after graduation or wait until they have more experience. The answer depends on a number of factors, naturally, but I do warn them about the personal sacrifices they will undoubtedly face. All entrepreneurs must ask themselves whether they will be able to tolerate these sacrifices—and whether their families will be able to tolerate them, too. Granted, if you wait until you've been in the workforce for a few years, you'll have more business experience and, let's hope, money in the bank. But you will also have grown accustomed to spending more money; you may be faced with the terror of not being able to make a decision about the business because you can't afford it. If you start early, on the other hand, both your appetite for creature comforts and your family responsibilities are not likely to be as great, and you will be able to make different choices. That's one of the reasons it's important to evaluate the risks and rewards of a venture in such a way that even if you don't succeed, you'll still be happy.

No matter what, however, you must always be a careful spender. In every business I've started—whether backed by venture capital funds, family investors, or my own bank account—I've arranged my affairs so that on short notice I can afford to live without a salary for a year. This approach has allowed me to keep the business going longer with fewer resources or to start another venture if the first one dies. And I've had to do that. For instance, when Bob and I were developing VisiCalc, we raised a little more than $25,000 from family members as a down payment for the computer we used to write the program. Then we obtained royalty advances from the publisher who agreed to distribute the software, which we used to pay other expenses. We didn't draw a salary for about a year, and we were able to live like a couple of students. We were willing to stay in the cheapest hotels or with family members when we traveled to trade shows or made sales calls, and on a few occasions, we even shared a bed if it meant we could save a few dollars. Neither of us had a lot of other responsibilities at the time, so when we sacrificed a little personal comfort on behalf of the business, we didn't have to worry that our families would suffer, too.

The final and most important lesson every entrepreneur must learn is this: You are not your business. On those darkest days when things aren't going so well—and trust me, you will have them—try to remember that your company's failures don't make you an awful person. Likewise, your company's successes don't make you a genius or superhuman. To avoid this ego trap, first you should consider the difference between pushing a tidal wave and riding one, and second, you should accept that every business faces challenges beyond its control. Obviously, these are difficult points to remember when you're heading for a rough patch, but I tell you from experience, business failure is not the end of the world.

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Excerpted with permission from "Natural­Born Entrepreneur," Harvard Business Review, Vol.79, No. 8, September 2001.

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Dan Bricklin is the founder and chief technology officer of Trellix Corporation in Concord, Massachusetts.

Entrepreneurs Are Born—And Made

My entrepreneurial backbone was formed much earlier, as a kid in Philadelphia. My father headed up the family printing business, Bricklin Press, which had been founded by his father in the 1930s. Afternoons spent at the printing plant and dinners devoted to the day's business problems prepared me (though I didn't realize it at the time) for the trials I would face in my own business ventures. My family's unspoken dedication to the business gave me respect for the paradox of running your own business-the contradictory feelings of freedom and responsibility that define the experience of setting out on your own. Growing up, I never expected that some big company would eventually take care of me; instead, I was always looking for opportunities to turn some nifty idea into a business. Some ideas would work out, I hoped, but I knew others wouldn't, and that risk didn't stop me from wanting to try. I suppose you could say the entrepreneurial instinct was in my genes. But much like a lot of people, I also became an entrepreneur because I felt I couldn't achieve my goals through any other means.

Excerpted with permission from "Natural­Born Entrepreneur," Harvard Business Review, Vol.79, No. 8, September, 2001.