Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Until Lions have their own storytellers

There is an old African proverb that says "until lions have their own storytellers, tales of the hunt will always favour the hunter".

I feel a bit like that whenever I read about the latest venture capital triumph. How such and such a firm got a "ten X" return (ten times its investment back) when one of its companies was sold. Sometimes the entrepreneur will also get a little mention. Hurrah!

I do worry that the entrepreneurs voice is not being heard loud enough. Where are the start-up storytellers? If we don't tell the stories of the entrepreneurs struggles and achievements we won't attract the talent in to the start-up industry in the UK. Young guys will continue to try to make it from corporate/banking/accounting life straight in to venture capital land bypassing the stage of getting their hands dirty wrestling with a real, live start up.

But there is no substitute for experience. Just remember, as the village elders say "it is the woman whose child has been eaten by a witch who best knows the evils of witchcraft".

It is incredibly tough being an entrepreneur and I am as much in awe of the guys who have started something up, and worked flat out only to see it fail as the handful who strike it lucky. There is so much to learn from people who have been though tough times but you rarely hear anything from them in the UK where we are quick to sweep any hint of failure under the carpet. After all is it not said "do not look where you fell, look where you slipped"?

The entrepreneur who has been though tough times will have an intuition about what steps to take that can't be taught from a textbook. Our people say "the hunter does not cover his body in oil then lie down by the fire to sleep at night".

The true entrepreneur with a big vision will keep focused on his goal ("the hunter on the trail of an elephant does not stop to throw stones at birds"). He will gather a great team around him ("it takes a village to raise a child"). He will make sure his company is recognised ("the African sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under them") and he will seize opportunities when the arise ("a child's fingers are not scalded by a piece of hot yam which his mother puts in to his palm").

All entrepreneurs that I know, even the very successful ones, are very aware of how normal they are really. We all put on a brave front and puff out our chests but we know our limitations ("even the mightiest eagle comes down to the treetops to sleep") and any up and coming entrepreneurs should bear this in mind ("looking at a Chief's mouth, one would never think he sucked his mothers breast").

Of course, it isn't all straight forwards and sometimes you do end up in a mess ("the disobedient fowl obeys in a pot of soup") but contrary to most observers preconceptions, it's not all about the exit. The fun for the entrepreneur is the journey itself. It's that first pitch. You first employee. Printing your first business card. The first time someone pays you £1 for your work. The first time a newspaper mentions your company in an article.
All these steps, all these milestones, waking up every morning to face the new challenge of the day is what being a start-up guy is all about. After all, "every morning that the lion wakes up, it knows that it must outrun the gazelle or it will starve to death."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would imagine the Chinese have some interesting proverbs that apply to entrepreneurs - Hong Kong is, after all, an entrepot, a place whose very existence is derived from being a good place to cut deals with China.

I quit my job there in 2000 to go solo, with a plan to build a dot-com in the commercial property market (which is huge over there). Local Chinese friends were incredulous, not that I was starting alone, but that I was only starting one business: the norm is to start three. One will fail, one will succeed, and the third can tick along on one side or be integrated into the successful idea - it's an insurance policy of sorts.

The other thing that struck me about the culture there was a social acceptance of failure. There is no stigmatisation of an entrepreneur whose business failed, only of entrepreneurs who didn't get back on their feet and start again. That's pretty much the opposite of the UK where we won't tolerate a failed start-up or the people behind it.

Maybe we need to come up with a few new phrases to describe British entrepreneurs - "who dares, at least got off his backside and tried it" doesn't trip off the tongue, but it's a start!