The most successful entrepreneurs and executives I have seen are savvy business people first, and experts in their field second. This may seem counter-intuitive to technologists, especially in an era when technology seems to be driving the world. Yet the sad truth is that a technology not focused on a real problem is not a business, and will probably fail in the marketplace.
Examples that come to mind include satellite phones, the Segway PT vehicle, hydrogen fueled auto engines, and many more. The issue in these cases was usually not the technology per se, but the bigger business picture of marketable prices, ease of use, and support infrastructures.
It still amazes me how many entrepreneurs can fathom the physics of gyroscopes, but fail to comprehend the big picture requirements for positive cash flow and profit. Kevin Cope, in his classic book “Seeing the Big Picture”, does a great job of outlining the basics of business acumen for executives, and helped me assimilate some practical ideas on building the essential elements for entrepreneurs:
- Reserve time daily to research the market, as well as technology. Learning is a never-ending requirement for every entrepreneur. At best, all they teach you in school is how to learn. In these days of rapid change, most experts believe that the facts college students learn as a sophomore are obsolete before they exit their senior year.
- Build relationships with key experts in your business domain. Talk regularly with peers and advisors who have been there before you. Your focus should be on listening and asking questions, rather than defensively arguing that your situation is somehow different from all the others.
- Be proactive in contributing business ideas and follow through. Talk is cheap when it comes to innovative ideas in business. You don’t really understand a new idea, until you try to write it down and succinctly communicate it to peers and critics. Waiting to follow through until you are backed in a corner is usually too little, too late.
- Network in the industry as well as outside. The best entrepreneurs have the best “little black book” of expert contacts. Through personal outreach, as well as industry organizations, they are constantly on the lookout for people smarter and more experienced in their domain. Networking requires sharing as well as taking.
- Even the best have mentors they really use. A mentor is someone who will tell you what you need to hear, while friends and associates often tell you what you want to hear. Of course, it’s good to have both, but don’t confuse the two. Above all, be accountable to yourself in your efforts to keep the big picture in perspective.
- Understand the business, then add value. The more business acumen you accumulate, the more likely you will be to bring real innovation and survive the deadly challenges. Ultimately, every business decision is a quest for maximum return on investment (ROI), utilizing cash, technology, and human resources.
You don’t have to have an MBA to understand that even the most complex multinational businesses are made up of five key drivers – cash, profit, assets, growth, and people. While each driver is unique, it is also completely dependent on all the other drivers. Experts in technology might thus only understand twenty percent of what they need to succeed in business.
In my view, the big picture starts with a continuous effort to better understand the basic business elements, as well the technology and people elements. The next step is using all the elements of business intelligence available today to sort through and prioritize the flood of information and evidence of continual change in the market all around us.
The best entrepreneurs never lose sight of the big picture, and they never stop learning until they die. Unfortunately, it too often works the other way around.