Michael Arrington wrote a humdinger of a post this weekend, titled “Are you a Pirate?” It almost universally was cheered by entrepreneurs.
But 24 hours later I’m left with a bad taste in my mouth.
1. Pirates steal, but don’t create value.
2. He just told his team to earn his respect by starting a company and not working anymore for him. Is that good strategy for someone who wants to build a lasting brand?
3. He was made rich, at least in part, by the efforts of others. AOL bought Techcrunch, in large part, because of his great conferences. Those were done by other people. Plus, I’ve seen the hard work others put in behind the scenes at Techcrunch. Mike hired well, but now seems to be spitting at people who’ll work for other people.
4. Great things require teams. While Arrington is praising the “pirate” who leaves normal society to “run a company” he forgets that a baseball team with only a coach isn’t very interesting at all.
Believe me, I know what he’s talking about. I left a nice cushy job at Microsoft to join a small startup (Podtech) that no one had ever heard about. It’s the fourth startup I’ve been a part of in my life.
I remember the thrills of closing deals, and hiring people, but I also have lots of battle scars after that, too. Guess what, the scars tend to stick around long after the wine celebrating the successes has been drunk.
But there is something in Michael’s post that rings true. I like people who build things. I don’t call them pirates. I call them innovators. Inventors. Geeks. Coders. Developers.
My favorite memories are when I get to hang out with them and study what they are building. I remember that lunch where I invited Albert Lai and Michael over to have lunch with Bill Gates. It’s one of my favorite memories. Why? Because Gates had already built an interesting company and I knew Arrington and Lai would do something interesting in their futures. Why? They are builders. Not pirates.
Lai went on to found Kontagent. You can see him here:
But back to Arrington’s post and whether or not he should be your cheerleader?
I love how he says entrepreneurs don’t need to be rewarded for risk, because they get utility out of the risk itself. That’s bull. I don’t see Mike handing back his check from AOL, for instance. If there were no possibility of getting freaking rich there would be far fewer people who’d take the leap.
It is a hard leap to take, too. On my wall is a poster from the latest Techcrunch party. It is by my friend Hugh MacLeod. It says “I’m not delusional. I’m an entrepreneur.” The act of leaving a cushy job at a cushy company like Microsoft or Google or Facebook and heading somewhere that there’s not a certain outcome +is+ delusional and it’s not done for any one reason.
But there are some good reasons.
1. You want to build something that your company isn’t letting you build. I’ve heard this over and over. Steve Wozniak told me how HP and Atari didn’t let him build the personal computer that he wanted to build. Look at the pain that drips out of the reasons that Lars Rasmussen gives for leaving Google and joining Facebook. I think this reason trumps the “living the pirate’s life” that Arrington gives.
2. You want to have a bigger impact on the industry. Let’s face it, if you stay at a big company the chances that you’ll get to somewhere you can control a big budget, thousands of people, etc, are pretty small. Yes, it happens. But usually it takes decades, a lot of hard work, a lot of luck, and probably a good pedigree (you’ll note that most of the people at Microsoft in power positions actually started companies at some point in their past). If you join a startup that gets big you’ll have a bigger impact on industry. Here, who has more impact? Tristan Walker, who’s doing business development at Foursquare? Or someone at level 51 at Microsoft (that was my level, seven levels down from Ballmer)? Believe me, it’s easier to become the next Tristan Walker than it is to get to level 54 and usually it’s the level 60’ers who have a world impact at Microsoft. Yes, I know, I broke the rules, but how often has that happened at Microsoft in the four years since I left?
3. You want a better lifestyle. Believe it or not, I’d rather work at SmugMug than at ANY big company. Why? Dogs are allowed (watch my video tour of the company). They have hand-made meals every day. And everytime I visit there folks are having fun. Or, go around the corner from my house to GoPro. Now THOSE guys have fun! They take their cameras surfing and skiing and their founder started the company out of a VW van. Most of the small companies I’ve worked in were more fun (for both the pirate reasons that Arrington gave, as well as the other ones that Rasmussen talked about) then big ones.
4. You want to work with people you LIKE. Ask Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos, about this one. He sold a company in the 1990s because he hired people he didn’t like. They all went to Microsoft. When Tony started Zappos he made sure he hired people he liked. Would he last long at a big company where he didn’t have control over who he dealt with? No way.
5. Control of your destiny. This doesn’t come automatically, even at small companies. At Podtech I and another executive had huge disagreements over strategies. One of us was wrong and one of us should have gotten fired. But those disagreements caused life to not be fun for either of us. In the end I think they contributed to the lack of success that company saw. At great companies I see everyone rowing in the same direction. I now look at strategy of companies I join and look for whether everyone is pulling in same direction. It’s a HUGE quality of life decision and worth leaving any company over if you can’t have it.
Anyway, back to the question I posed. Entrepreneurs, is Michael Arrington really the guy who want cheerleading you?
1. He’s had great success. I can’t argue with his bank account.
2. He’s built a great team and a great company.
3. He changed the world.
4. He got to work with people he liked and got to get rid of people he didn’t.
5. He kept control of his life and his strategy.
1. Pirate is a horrible metaphor for someone trying to build something of value. Pirates steal, the best entrepreneurs build.
2. Changing the world takes a team, not just a leader.
3. I know many entrepreneurs who find a way to balance real life and their work, Pirates can’t.
4. Entrepreneurship isn’t an elitist club. I joined that club in high school in Junior Achievement (I was so happy I met the CEO of Junior Achievement at Davos — aside, great organization that helps tens of millions of kids get into entrepreneurship). Arrington makes it sound superior to other career choices. It’s not. It’s just different.
5. Risk should be faced as a team. Pirates face risk alone and force their teams to deal with the consequences of that risk. The best entrepreneurs I meet face risk as a team. Jim Fawcette, for instance, asked us all to take a salary cut one year to help avoid layoffs. He took that too. A pirate’s approach would have been to cut staff and damn the consequences.
6. Pirates don’t work with other ships, but entrepreneurs do. Think about all those folks working in big companies. Foursquare did. They just got picked up by Zagat’s and Starbucks. By folks working in non-pirate modes. How? They worked as smart entrepreneurs, looking for win-win. Great entrepreneurs don’t denigrate the efforts of those who didn’t make the same career choices they did. They celebrate them, in fact. If no one was working at big companies there wouldn’t be anyone to make deals with.
7. Pirates hide their loot under ground. Great entrepreneurs look for ways to put money back to use to help make their companies bigger, better, or to invest in other companies and people. I’d rather hang out with Chris Sacca, for instance, than someone who wanted to be a pirate.
8. Great entrepreneurs want to build great companies and look to successful companies as models. I’ve walked around great companies with some great leaders and I notice the most successful ones take notes. Listen to Rackspace’s chairman, Graham Weston, talking with Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos, after Graham got a tour of Zappos. Guess what? Success is usually big companies. Pirates poopooh studying big companies, but great entrepreneurs don’t.
Anyway, Arrington is a friend of mine, but as the industry cheerleader I’d rather go with Brian Chesky of AirBnB. He is the entrepreneur I wish to be someday, you should watch his speech at YCombinator’s Startup School from a couple of weeks ago.
I don’t want to be a pirate. I want to be someone who keeps building until I find a way to please customers.