It is nearly the New Year, and I guess it is a good time to be somewhat introspective. I visited my friend in Finland back in autumn, staying over at her boyfriend’s dad’s summer house in the countryside. It was one of those rare times when I visit a country and actually neglect to explore the major city (Helsinki) in any meaningful depth. I did, however, manage to experience the beauty of the countryside, appreciate the simple pleasures of home cooking and especially the honey and the freshly smoked salmon.

Recalling the experience, I was led to think about a recent discussion pertaining to how selfish “entrepreneurship” is unlikely to be successful. Having stayed at a friend’s family’s place with minimal financial investment, I managed to enjoy a vacation and thus consume value that would have been otherwise impossible without the favour of friendship. The willingness to forgo monetary recompense in this case has resulted in the generation of value through good times together and the ability to enjoy a previously unexplored part of the world.

From recent discussions, it seems like the problems with selfish entrepreneurship come from a couple major areas: The unwillingness to share resources and the inability to think from the perspective of a customer.

The unwillingness to share is a form of selfishness, and a self-defeating attitude at that. Often, the resources of an individual would be quite limited, and an individual attempting to drive under one’s own power results in massive waste: Every individual who thinks this way is operating inefficiently and must necessarily sacrifice any efficiency gains from economies of scale, resulting in duplicated efforts that are wasted across the board.

I would recall the early question of “If I am smart, why am I not rich?” On closer examination, one will realize that the label of “smart” is often used as an excuse to keep resources to oneself. One is so afraid of losing the smart label, perhaps by failing on a risky endeavour, sharing ideas that others may judge as silly, or any other number of possibilities that put the label at risk. As a result, there is an unwillingness to cooperate. This is most apparent in corporate environments where competition is cut-throat amongst people who are presumably highly skilled (and smart).

Conversely, a number of successful company founders are not burdened by this label, and work to link up with other smart people who can help them do what they want to. They are willing to acknowledge that their brand of smart is not self-contained, and that there can be complementary skillsets out there. As a result, this teamwork succeeds where even brilliant individuals may not.

Secondly, there is the matter of the inability to think from the perspective of a customer. When one thinks that one is brilliant, presumably one can provide superior solutions which the customer does not even know that they want yet. There is a prevalent fantasy amongst would-be unicorn founders that Steve Jobs created demand where there was none. Yet, to think that would discount the fact that the man had an obsessive eye for detail, an instinct for what is pleasing to use, impeccable salesmanship and most importantly had a stellar team behind the tech enterprise.

The problem I’ve found (even in myself) is a tendency to think in terms of what I would want if I were the customer. Ordinarily, this would be a great way to have customer-oriented thinking, only that it’s often done from what one would want from one’s own personal experience rather than establishing an idea of what similar customers are likely to want and then tailoring the product to suit the customer. I also note that it is of benefit for one to be naturally aligned to what customers would desire, though a lack of talent can be more than compensated for by ample research and learning.

Thinking back on these two points, I find that it is exceedingly difficult to truly understand them from the perspective of a company employee. In fact, in many large organizations, the skillset and attitudes are arguably directly contrary to these modes of thinking because the reward systems are not aligned with the practices that more directly generate revenue.

Sales, as a profession, tends to be well aligned whereby commissions are directly linked to sales volumes, and thereby lend themselves to innovations in improving sales methods. In many other professions, one draws a regular salary and is more likely to increase revenue from impressing superiors and being able to lay claim to a bigger slice of a larger project, thereby enjoying improved remuneration.

This latter point, I feel, is part of the greater golden handcuffs problem whereby “smart” people wind up earning good but not great returns, and consequently feel reluctant to engage in other enterprises that may initially yield lower returns. In fact, upon exit from the regular job market, they would be quite unsuited to earning their keep on their own.

To sum up, part of the answer to “If I am smart, why am I not rich?” is essentially: What is smartness? An intelligent, capable person who is well suited to the conventional job market may be considered to be smart, yet that same person manages to be remarkably maladapted for the more entrepreneurial market. In that sense, perhaps they are not quite as smart (or practiced, at the very least) in those areas. Now the next question for the New Year would be: How does one acquire those skills while working at a conventional outfit? Perhaps one could call it a New Year’s resolution.

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