Friday, April 8, 2011

Zen and the Art of Entrepreneurship

Where are the Monasteries?

~ Chris DeVore relates the parable of the Zen archer, told him by Yvon Chouinard:
Archery target with arrows
When asked about whether sales and revenue was something he was thinking about, Yvon would respond by telling the story of the Zen archer who spent years of his life perfecting each minute step in the ritual of shooting an arrow. In his story, the focus the archer brought to achieving perfect beauty and economy of motion at each step - selecting an arrow, fitting it to the string, drawing the bow and releasing the arrow - was so complete that striking the target came [as] an afterthought. In his telling, the arrow always hit the center of the target, not because it was carefully aimed, but because all the preceding moments had been so honed that it was the only possible outcome.
I've read about Chouinard, founder of Patagonia before, most recently in Fortune. He's a fascinating fellow who shows by example that sustainability is not just good, but good business.

But back to the parable.

It's a brilliant and satisfying one for a bootstrapped business. Too bad most funding sources don't value anything other than bull's-eyes, by whatever means. How you hit that target matters much less than the fact that you hit it. It's all about results. Investors don't commit their money to help entrepreneurs become better, and none have the patience to allow one to spend years perfecting execution skills.

There is a wry golf course observation that there are no pictures (much less videos) on the scorecard. A terrible shot that proves lucky has the same score as a gorgeous shot executed perfectly. But which golfer would you rather sponsor or have as your playing partner?

It's not that investors don't prefer talent to luck; I'm sure they do. But do they have the patience to identify and subsequently develop talent, rather than just pressing for more arrows shot into the air? How do entrepreneurs develop that talent? Malcolm Gladwell asserts that it takes 10,000 hours to attain fundamental mastery in anything. That's 3 hours a day, every day, for the better part of 10 years; or for most of us 3-5 years of more intense effort.

Our entrepreneurial ecosystem favors and rewards serial entrepreneurs, i.e. those that have spent the years of practice, honed the ritual of execution and (more often) hit the center of the target. I remember when I was a new, beginning entrepreneur. I was fortunate to have had investors who believed in me and the rest of the team at Enerdyne Solutions. However, it took quite a while to start hitting the target. Enerdyne Solutions is cash-flow positive now, and growing. I was lucky to have had so many others believe in me, and advisors and mentors to whom I apprenticed, but it was a tough and somewhat haphazard way to learn the craft, and the investors have yet to see the lucrative exit we all wanted to make.

Chouinard is a perfectionist. He is the Zen Archer of Patagonia. But he has had the vision, perseverance and good luck to own his company without having to rely on others to provide outside investment capital. He never had to make the Faustian bargain with VC. No one took away his arrows in impatience with the pace of his studied ritual. He has succeeded in the figurative mountain climb to the peak, and by taking one of the most challenging routes.

Entrepreneurs attain mastery by doing, but such doing takes time, and it is enormously difficult to do so on one's own. Having good mentors helps. Working with one of the growing number of incubators (like Chris' Founder's Co-Op) also betters the odds. Or adding experienced people to your team who already have that target-hitting Zen skill. But in almost all cases entrepreneurs need the resources to survive the meanwhile. Investor funding for this is scant, which discourages many and leads others to fail not through lack of potential, but lack of resources to sustain the effort.

Want to be an entrepreneur? Be wealthy to start, be an apprentice first, be very lucky, or be prepared for years of Top Ramen or, like Chouinard, dumpster diving and cat food.

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