October 11, 2015

The Mildly Crazy Mind of an Entrepreneur

Reporter David Segal of The New York Times wrote a piece in the Sunday, September 19, issue entitled Just Manic Enough: Seeking Perfect Entrepreneurs – The New York Times which really resonated with me.

I am producing a feature film, and many have said to me, in one form or another, what one investor said in the article about starting a new company: “You need to suspend disbelief to start a company, because so many people will tell you that what you’re doing can’t be done, and if it could be done, someone would have done it already.” Segal describes entrepreneurs and people like me who are engaged in entrepreneur-like activity as having to be “just crazy enough.”

As a person in the middle of what seems like a crazy venture, I would say the following about why I decided to proceed:

  • I am not a psychotic risk taker who is making judgments based on no objective evidence that would support my belief that my film can be successful. There are many bits of information and insight that would support my position. I am just assembling the bits in a way they have not been assembled before.
  • The notion that, if it could have been done, someone would have done it already is flawed for several reasons:
  • As Thomas Kuhn wrote in his 1960 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, most revolutionary thinking that disrupts a marketplace or a field of scientific inquiry is introduced by people outside that field. The reason is that people deeply experienced in the business models prevalent in a particular field are deeply invested in the continuation of those models, not in disruptive or transformational thinking. That is the key point Clayton Christensen makes in his great 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma.
  • Sometimes, someone new to a field has the insight and the capabilities to do something that people in the field do not have. For example, in the case of the film I am producing, From the Rough, I have built a team consisting of African Americans who have a better understanding of the multicultural marketplace than the traditional film industry executives, who are great at large blockbuster films, but not as knowledgeable about how to reach niche audiences. Big studios and distributors are better at producing and marketing big movies than they are at knowing what to do with smaller movies.
  • Sometimes circumstances change in a way that a new thinker can get to the market a little bit ahead of everyone else, simply because the established players have more cumbersome decision making processes.

What people who question entrepreneurs do not understand is that entrepreneurs do not simply adopt established market ideas. They mix and match ideas from multiple sources to create something new and different. This was exceptionally well explained by Wall Street Journal writer Steven Johnson in an article entitled “The Genius of the Tinkerer” in the September 25-26 issue of the Wall Street Journal. As Johnson put it:

“But ideas are works of bricolage. They are, almost inevitably, networks of other ideas. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.”

The biggest challenge for established players, especially large public companies, is to explain to public investors in what market they are competing when try to enter a new market. They are much more comfortable acquiring companies in an existing market because it is easier to explain to people.

Finally, entrepreneurs are wired quite different from people in large companies. What I have noticed since I began this process relative to the film project 7 ½ months ago is that I have had to change course many times during this period, and to make many decisions on the fly with incomplete information and with a large appetite to take sizable risks. Large company decision makers usually are not wired to do this. There have been some messy situations created, but they are an expected consequence of multiple changes of course.

Entrepreneurs do not always succeed, and I might very well be one of those who do not. However, I feel a whole lot more comfortable knowing that some of what I have considered to be my mildly crazy behavior is not that unusual in an entrepreneurial environment.