Entrepreneurs Often Need ‘Adult Supervision’

 

Takeaway

  • If you want to be a successful entrepreneur, being your own boss is not enough — building a successful enterprise should be the real goal

When Google founder Larry Page was appointed as CEO in January, the previous CEO, Eric Schmidt tweeted: “Day to day adult supervision no longer needed”.  Wall Street has been working overtime trying to speculate what all of this means for the long term, but it's really most meaningful as a lesson in entrepreneurship. 

Google was a great idea, and the founders were obviously intelligent and right on top of the technology.  However, they had virtually no business experience. The initial investors decided that some assistance with the business side of the operation would be a substantial benefit, increasing the chances of success substantially.  We will never know what would have happened if they had not insisted on “adult supervision,” but we know that Google has succeeded extremely well with the given situation.

Google is not the first startup to receive such assistance — Michael Dell surrounded himself with some very respected business names as his company got rolling. This pattern has repeated over and over in the startup tech space. 

On the other hand, the world is littered with examples of failed startups that did not get needed help.  A biotech startup using UT science failed two years ago when no effort was made to strengthen an obviously deficient management team.  In my “Marketing for Entrepreneurs” class, it is normal to hear that students want to be entrepreneurs in order to “be my own boss.”  If you want to be successful, being your own boss should not be the goal — building a successful enterprise is the real goal.  Building that enterprise may require that you take on assistance, even take a back seat as Larry Page did. 

None of us know everything there is to know.  Often we recognize that there is much we don’t know.  Those things we can ask about.  What kills you is what “you don’t know you don’t know,” or issues you don’t even know to ask about.  Walking along on a moonless night on the flat land near Amarillo seems safe enough until you step off into a steep-walled canyon that you had no clue was there.

Wise leaders surround themselves with quality people.  The best business people I have worked with have made this a point of their leadership. To name a few: Bill Marriott (who has grown Marriott tremendously despite some troubled times during his tenure as CEO), Chad Holliday (who led a somewhat dormant DuPont into a new age of growth and profitability), and Joe Forehand (who led Accenture from a partnership to a public corporation and grew the firm substantially despite the Internet bubble). These leaders have made a point of surrounding themselves with a strong management team and, even if they find the presence of those other strong personalities trying at times, those strong management teams have proven their value over and over.

On the other hand, one company I worked with had a CEO who created that rarity — a conglomerate that made sense. However, it didn’t work because the business unit management was weak. When the CEO finally took action to strengthen the management team, it was too late. 

So, you want to be an entrepreneur? Follow Google’s example and get all the help you can.  Use friends, family, board members, or hire the best brains you can find to help you drive the business.

Disclaimer

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily The University of Texas at Austin.

About The Author

John Highbarger

Lecturer, Department of Marketing at the McCombs School of Business

John Highbarger joined the faculty of the Marketing Department in 2003, after retiring as Global Managing Partner in the Strategy Practice of...

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