Lists of lessons for entrepreneurs are common, but Stewart Thornhill, a professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, has come up with one that is probably more provocative – and memorable – than others you have seen. More helpful, too.
Prof. Thornhill teaches entrepreneurship, strategy and leadership, and tried to combine those three fields into lessons that are generally not discussed but are all the more important because of that omission.
An article he wrote in the Ivey Business Journal was titled “Ten Dirty Little Secrets of Entrepreneurs,” but he acknowledged that despite the eye-catching headline, it’s not so much that they are secrets as they are things left unsaid. They aren’t “little,” either. They are big traps to watch for:
1. People are lazy
Whenever possible, individuals will seek to accomplish whatever needs to be done with as little effort as possible. For entrepreneurs, this is important in two ways. First, the most effective innovations assume people are lazy, and they help them be that way. “Don’t assume anything other than laziness in your customers,” Prof. Thornhill said in a recent interview.
It also means if you work hard on an idea, you’ll win out. He cites Netflix as an example: “Maybe 10,000 people had the same idea but the laziness of the 9,999 (gave) the one who followed up a chance.”
2. People are impatient
People, including customers, want things now. “If we can delay gratification, we can attain some significant advantages. But as entrepreneurs, we should be just as wary about launching a business that requires our customers to wait as we are about one that makes them work hard,” he writes in the journal article.
“The success of the fast food industry should tell us all we need to know about the value of instant gratification.”
3. Everything takes longer than you think
When asked to highlight the most important message in his list, Prof. Thornhill landed on what he calls a universal law that everything – from going out to get milk, to travelling across town for a meeting, to developing a new product – takes more time than you expect. It’s one of the reasons entrepreneurs work around the clock. It is also why they fail: They neglect to allow enough time – or raise enough money – for things to happen.
4. One thing leads to another
Accept that the first version – or the first 10 versions – of what you’re selling won’t be perfect. “The process of trying, fixing, and trying again is how entrepreneurs figure out what their customers really want and what it will take to deliver against those expectations,” he writes.
This is why investors bet on people, not ideas: They know the ideas will morph into something new and better with the right people at the helm.
5. There is no free lunch
There is only so much time and money available, so you must make choices. The hardest thing for an entrepreneur to do is to say no to a customer. “But if you chase every shiny penny you see on the sidewalk, you shouldn’t be surprised if you end up somewhere you didn’t want to be,” Prof. Thornhill warns in the article.
6. Stuff happens
Often the stuff that happens is beyond our expectations. So accept that you can’t plan for everything, and recognize that the tradeoffs you make will determine your ability to respond to future events. One thing that entrepreneurs can plan for is that they might get fed up with their business partner, so prepare a “shotgun” agreement at the start, like a pre-nuptial agreement to handle the business divorce.
7. We’re all animals
We are biological machines and we don’t work well if we neglect our bodies. In the interview, Prof. Thornhill said his wife knows that if he starts acting like an idiot she should just give him a cookie, which raises his blood sugar. He’s also a huge fan of afternoon naps. “Minds and bodies are linked,” he noted.
8. Sweat the details
It is vital to understand the intimate details of a venture (as the heads of investment banks learned too late, to their discredit). Prof. Thornhill stressed that he is not encouraging micro-management, simply knowledge of the details.
9. Learn from everything
As an educator, Prof. Thornhill is passionate about learning, and he knows that successful entrepreneurs and business leaders share that passion. Ask yourself what you have learned in the past 24 hours, and if nothing comes to mind, pick up a book or magazine, or watch a TED talk online.
When interviewed, he was following his own advice: learning to fly a helicopter at a training school in Arizona.
10. Don’t be a jerk
If you want to build an organization with great people, don’t send them scurrying away with jerk-like behaviours. But as Prof. Thornhill noted in the interview: “The irony is that the people who are least likely to heed this advice are most likely going to need it.”
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter