In Pursuit of Excellence

 

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Excellence is not a synonym for perfection. Standing in awe of a masterpiece can make an  artist feel like perfection is the goal, when in reality the best we will ever do is excellence. I think the same can be said for building a business from the ground up. It is the aspiration for perfection that drives excellence.

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”

-Vince Lombardi

While learning to draw, I studied with several modern day masters, including Jim Ostlund and Michelle Mitchell Ostlund at the Art Atelier and Ben Long at the Fine Arts League. Studying with the masters is an age old path to understanding and excellence. These teachers would not allow mediocrity in their students. They required excellence even in the details, because realism, when first learning to draw, is the ultimate goal. What I learned was that for every detail I adjusted, the drawing became stronger, and all of the details I noted while searching for a perfect drawing improved my knowledge of the work I was doing.

In Steven Schussler’s book Its a Jungle In There, he alludes to entrepreneurship as an art form. As an entrepreneur, he ponders that maybe the term starving artist is about “‘being willing to forego normal creature comforts in search of perfection in one’s work (30).” As an artist and an entrepreneur, one must never be satisfied to rest on prior accomplishments. A look back at older work will quickly show you your shortcomings in excellence. This is not because you previously failed, but because you grew more adept at seeing excellence.

“Today’s excellence, tomorrow’s mediocrity.” 

-Aristotle

Schussler talks about missing the whisp of smoke from a model train in his Winter Wonderland restaurant concept. This detail, while ephemeral at most, was exceedingly important to executing his concept, and a hallmark of his attention to detail in pursuit of excellence. He felt this oversight on his part, was “a step backward from excellence; it compromised the quality of what we were trying to create (61).”

“Excellence is the unlimited ability to improve the quality of what you have to offer.”

-Rick Pitino

When endeavoring to create a product, an entrepreneur can look at the masters of entrepreneurship as role models for quality. Steve Jobs, so often considered a master in business, says, “Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.” Just like drawing, attention to detail is a learned habit. The more you look, the more you see. In drawing, learning to see is of the utmost importance beacuse you cannot draw what you don’t see. In entrepreneurship, one must learn to see the whole picture, the dream of the business, and then work back from there searching for the details that will make your vision successful.

“Excellence is a better teacher than mediocrity. The lessons of the ordinary are everywhere.Truly profound and original insights are to be found only in studying the exemplary.”

Warren Bennis

Risk and the PB&J

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I am not a risk-taker. I never climb on anything taller than myself. I would NEVER jump out of an airplane. I don’t even like to walk barefoot over gravel. Beyond physical risk, I am also not, in most repects, keen on taking emotional risks either. I recently polled my friends and family, asking if they perceive me as a risk-taker. Most of them laughed and I conclude that I am indeed, not a risk-taker.

But, I did just sign up to learn how to be an entrepreneur. I began reading Steven Schusser’s best selling book, It’s a Jungle in There: Inspiring Lessons, Hard-Won Insights, and Other Acts of Entrepreneurial Daring. I felt a little worried in Chapter One when I realized my risk-taking skills were lacking. When Chapter Two moved on to passion, I felt a little more comfortable, secure in my ability to feel passionate about many things, specifically art making and creativity. I could talk about and explore these topics until most people’s eyes glaze over.

When Shcusser proceeded to ambition in Chapter Three, my eyebrows knitted and I began to worry that perhaps I needed to reconsider my endeavors in entrepreneurship. But then, Schusser wrote this:

“Think of passion and ambition as the peanut butter and jelly of entrepreneurial success: They work together to create a better outcome. Passion provides the fuel that drives a person to create a service or product and ambition supplies the desire to get that service or product out to the public (30).”

Ambition can be perceived as greedy, egotistical, or insincere. For me, art and the creative process strive for authenticity. It took a little PB&J visual to help me accept that ambition is not contrary to passion, and in fact, the two are catalysts for one another. If you have a passion for something, you want to see it brought into the world. You want to see it thrive, and that entails being profitable, being proud of the product or service created, and being bold in your support of your passion. As Schusser says both passion and ambition “must be present in people who want to reach their full potential as entrepreneurs (31).”

Entrepreneurship is an act of creativity, a process the entrepreneur must go through to bring a product or service to fruition. Returning to the concept of being a poor risk-taker, I have to admit, my passion for art and the creative process exceeds my fear of taking the leap into the entrepreneurial unknown. I am willing to risk something in order to appease my ambiton to share with the world the joy of the creative process.

Passion without ambition is just a sticky peanut butter sandwich.

 

Tidal Changes: Transitions and Growth

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When transistioning from a startup to a growth-oriented, mature company, there is a sense of low-tide, similar to the image of Mont Saint Michel in France.

The founder has built this castle, glorious, awe-inspiring, and grand, from the foundation up to the spires. Up in this castle, he is King. He is imbued with wealth and power. But alas, all the king’s men who helped fund the castle have conspired to dethrone him, wielding their great collective power over him and all that he worked so hard to build. He has the option to step down peaceably, which means he is more likely to retain at least some control over the kingdom he has built. But, if this low-tide shift in power comes unannounced, he will be dethroned quickly and suffer a great loss in the workings of the kingdom.

He has weathered other storms that threatened, watched the tides change around him day in and day out. But this tidal change is different. This one affects all the kings men, both loyal and new. This is a great sea change, one that erodes the bedrock of the castle on the sand. What did he do wrong? He thought he was a good kind, a fair king, efficient, capable, and beloved.

But his performance was not necessarily the reason the change began. The kingdom needed a new direction, to prosper and grow beyond his skill. Perhaps they could find a new king who had reigned in other lands? They may even ask the dethroned king to help find his replacement. Surely the vetting of a new king would help entrust the continued success of the kingdom!

And so, from founder to king to servant once again, he watches the tidal change. The vast expanse of low-tide will soon well up and surround the castle and its new king in wealth and power. If the founder can weather this change with the grace and dignity befitting a king, then he will see his former kingdom flourish. And perhaps he will retire at high-tide in a beautiful ship  on which to survey all he has accomplished.

Investor Dilemmas: Patronage

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It’s been a while since the Renaissance, when the church supported the arts in an effort to gain souls in heaven. Patronage however, is not dead. It’s just taken a more secular form. The largest investors in the arts are now government agencies, private patrons, and venture capital firms. When you consider the social media patrons of today, crowdfunding shows there has been a significant closing of the gap when it comes to class and wealth in supporting the arts. Now, the average Joe can support an idea he likes with a small investment. An artist gathers a hundred Joes, willing to invest $10 and the artist now has $1,000! It adds up quickly. But what happens when small change is not enough, when you have a Sistine Chapel to complete?

Early on, a founder must weigh in on whether to self-fund (perhaps through friends, family, or crowd-funding), find an Angel Investor (who may or may not have enough money or experience), or seek out a venture capitalist firm. Even artists of the Renaissance had supportive social capital, and perhaps even hoped for and Angel Investor, but Venture Capitalists are a new breed of patron. Motivations of these firms move above the religious call of saints into heaven.

In Noam Wasserman’s Book, The Founder’s Dilemma, he talks about investor dilemmas. Outside funding, once it moves beyond the circle of founder and friends, must necessarily begin to formalize. A company may build a Board of Directors, be required to account for the money invested, and hone strategies for increasing the wealth of the company. It is the high-stakes industries, such as technology and life sciences, that also require swift decisions and broad, risky leaps of faith. Angel investors may not require these things with any stringency, perhaps because they lack the experience or capital to do so, but venture capital firms want their investments to yield profits at all costs. This often places the founder and the founding team in hot water. The team may loose places of power on the Board. They may be squeezed into a tight spot and told to sell or else loose profit.

There is an element of buyer beware when it comes to accepting venture capital. Often these firms play on the optimism of the founder and offer investments based soley on their agenda, not the founding team’s vision. I get the impression, having never worked with a venture capital firm myself, that these firms seek power and control in order to gain profit. Thinking back to the Renaissance Patrons who leveraged their money to weild power over the lower classes, perhaps patronage is not altogether different after all.

I think for artists, the need for monumental patrons is still important, and the government does a passable job funding large art endeavors in the United States. However, the level of Angel Investor seems to strike a nice balance between the high-stakes cash of venture capital and the personal risk involved with investments through friends and family. Many arts related businesses are not looking for millions of dollars in investments. Solo artists in particular, may be looking for micro-loans, just enough to buy a new chop saw for building canvas, or the cost of painting a community mural on an eyesore building. This is where angel investors can shine a light on the arts! Also, many arts based businesses have a complimentary role in edifying the culture of where they are located. Crowd-funding, Facebook ads, pop-up markets, and small-time fundraisers, are perfect ways to find angel investors who may have a more community-minded reason for investing their money. In my mind, these are the true patrons in today’s society. With the growing movement of handmade and local items, I believe angel investors will contribute greatly to supporting the growth of small arts based businesses in today’s economy.

Keeping Your Tops

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According to Eric Herrenkohl, in his book “How to Hire A-Players,” top performers are a wiley bunch. They are intelligent, driven, easily bored, and require a certain amount of leadership investment. Herrenkohl advises building an organizational chart to fully comprehend the type of employee needed, then compare your needs to the staff currently holding those positions. The conclusive chapter in his book focuses mostly on businesses that are beyond startup and in some phase of growth or maturity. Therefore, his recommendations are based on a company which already has a collection of employees who likely fit into one of four roles. A-Players being the top performers. B-Players who have potential to be top performers through coaching and increased accountability. Borderline performers who have potential to be top performers by scaling down their roles. And C-players who have problems with performance that cannot be coached or changed (194). In summation, unless the employees have proven they are not up for a challenge, sub par performance can be coached, nudged, and incentivized to perform at top levels, if you happened to have neglected to hire A-players in the first place. (Yes, there is a degree of sarcasm present.)

I agree with Herrenkohl that recruiting A-players “is a sustainable, competitive advantage that can move [a] company ahead of [ones] competitors.” However, I’m glad he offers up the four types of employees and how to help them achieve more in their positions. I believe that very often employees will thrive if given enough respect and opportunity to shine. My take aways from this chapter are as follows:

  • Clearly plan and advertise your position
  • Hire a candidate who has the right skills for the position, both in education and personality
  • Plan to coach and support new employees in their roles
  • Pay attention to top performers and offer them incentives to mature into more important roles
  • Pay attention to b-players and decide how to best support them in their roles
  • Envision your employees in your future business plans so you can decide how to keep the best challenged and willing to move forward with your company
  • Recruit, recruit, recruit and when you have a poor performer, you will not have to look hard to find a better fit for your company

 

Hiring (Dilemmas) with Passion

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Passion. It comes with a certain kind of intensity. When someone is passionate about an idea, there is a fervor to their work, an intense desire not only to bring the work to fruition, but to see their idea wonderfully realized. When I was in college, I fell in love with photography. I loved my camera. I bought special cloths to clean the lens, a special bag to protect it. I read every book I could find about photography. I couldn’t wait to develop film or watch the latent image appear under the red glow of the darkroom lights. I was the last student to leave the darkroom when the sun went down. I was passionate about photography. The first job I was offered after graduation was taking portraits at Sears for $6.50 per hour and I turned it down. I couldn’t believe the compensation. Surely Sears could afford to pay more than minimum wage to a college graduate! Passion with all its intensity is diminished when rewards do not support the intensity of passion. I remember the young manager who hired me on the spot, was incredibly disappointed. Perhaps this was her first hiring campaign. She said she would make sure to tell the next interviewee the pay rate at the beginning of the interview. My point: when a founder begins hiring a team passion is imperative to the work, but it must be supported, motivated, and appreciated in order to acquire and keep top performers in your company.

“The biggest challenge in hiring a team is recognizing passion. Especially with the team that helps build Jetset Times, it’s not enough to just “love traveling.” Every single person on the team has to be passionate about journalism, creativity, making things work, seeing a long-term vision. Passion also can’t be pinpointed on a resume, it’s only in the presence of relentless work ethics and vibrant speech. It’s best revealed with time, which makes it difficult to recognize in the hiring process.”

Founder & CEO Wendy HungJetSet Times

There are many dilemmas facing a founder when hiring their founding team. Finding, hiring, and maintaining valuable employees is multifaceted not only at startup, but as the company matures as well. In Noam Wasserman’s book, The Founders Dilemma, he states that “founders face the same dilemmas with hiring decisions that they face with cofounding decisions, but with the added complexity of aligning the startup’s stage of development, its level of formality….and its available resources” (245). In Figure 8.9 (246), Wasserman breaks down the “three Rs” he discusses earlier in the chapter (211) of relationships, roles, and rewards as the company begins at startup, moves through transition, and becomes a mature business. The hiring needs of a startup are significantly different than a mature business. The startup begins working with personal networks, generalists, a low cash flow, and of course passion. Transitioning out of the beginning stages often sheds light on “decisions that seem ideal at first…[which reveal] employees at all levels struggle to scale with a maturing startup” (209). Titles and roles that were not clearly defined in the beginning often create tension. Some employees lack the skills or knowledge needed to progress in their position. And hiring to replace or add positions must focus on weak connections since the founder has likely already exhausted his or her personal network. If a business is able to persevere, the rewards come in investors, their financial and social capital, and all of the complications that emerge as a business becomes of age.

“When hiring someone in the technology field, it’s important to look for passion above anything else. It sounds cliche, but let me explain why. People who are passionate can be trained in everything even if they don’t have the “experience.” They are the most driven worker that you can have in the workplace. He or she can accomplish everything they are told to do and will go beyond the typical job requirements.”

Founder & CEO Jonathan TarudKoombea
100 person team working to build powerful technology & beautiful user experiences

I believe all of these stages require the aforementioned passion. How else could a small team of cofounders make it through all of the awkward phases of entrepreneurship? Why would employees accept the risk and relatively low compensation of helping to build someone else’s dream? And why would investors offer their capital if there was not a passion somewhere for what the founders want to create? Time and time again, I have read quotes from successful entrepreneurs, and the consensus among the averages is to hire employees who have an intensity of passion for what you want to create in your business. Then, depending on the stage of your business, consider their relationship, roles, and the rewards you will offer for their passion.