The ultimate compliment that any entrepreneur can get is that they can "see around corners." This is a statement that they are willing and able to (and successful at) projecting market and technology turns, not just straight-line innovations. They have the courage to make bold decisions, often contrary to conventional market research.
Steve Jobs of Apple has been maybe the most visible example of this phenomenon, but others often mentioned include Richard Branson (Virgin Group), Joe Costello (Cadence Design), and Howard Schultz (Starbucks). Most of you could suggest one more, but not many.
Seeing around the corner does not mean closing your eyes and jumping into the unknown. We can all point to the casualties from that approach. Great entrepreneurs seem to all exhibit a common set of attributes which go well beyond the basic skills required to be an entrepreneur:
- "Larger than life" personality and presence. Richard Branson's adventurer escapades are legendary, and Steve Jobs made new product presentations an experience, as well as a sales pitch and an education. Joe Costello was known to dress up as Frankenstein and the Riddler for company functions, and wasn't afraid to laugh at himself.
- Strive for breathtaking design, as well as function. Great entrepreneurs remember that great design motivates and excites customers, often even more than function. Design is not just about making things look pretty. It gives a product structure and style, and makes it memorable and unique.
- Practice learning as an action sport. Entrepreneurs who depend on the "traditional" learning process (schools, formal classes, practice problems and risk-free iterations) are doomed in breaking the paradigm. The best entrepreneurs attack learning like a sport, savoring the challenge, and practicing it every day.
- Possess extraordinary passion and energy. Visible passion is a quality that helps successful entrepreneurs choose their direction, attract clients, investors, and success. They also remember that energy is a resource that must be renewed, so they treat themselves well both physically and emotionally.
- Believe there is no such thing as a crazy idea. For real entrepreneurs, crazy is a compliment, and the new market may be just around the corner. Besides, many of the most commonly used items today, like disposable razor blades, were deemed crazy ideas before their inventors made a fortune.
- More to business than dollars and cents. Entrepreneurs who see around corners usually start with the "big" vision of making the world a better place. Guy Kawasaki talks about making your product a "cause," rather than just focusing on how much money you can make, and considering social entrepreneurship for maximum impact.
- Not afraid to kill the cash cow. Holding back on promising new businesses to maintain old ones is the bane of many entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, playing defense is easier than playing offense. Steve Jobs didn't hesitate to kill the iPod in favor of the iPhone and iPad, which moved the market to a whole new level and kept competitors at bay.
- Build a great team and nurture it. The best entrepreneurs know that investors invest in people, not ideas. Customers buy from people, not companies. With a team of the best people, the sum is greater than the parts, so your chances of surviving the walk around the corner are optimized. Surround yourself with people smarter than you.
But all these attributes don't mean that anyone should expect to get it right every time, or certainly not the first time. All the entrepreneurs mentioned here have had their share of failures and false starts. The key is learning from a failure, and having it increase your motivation and focus, rather than de-motivate.
My advice to the entrepreneur looking to earn the ultimate compliment is to first sharpen your view by tackling a more modest straight-line objective, and bouncing your bigger visions off people who have been there and done that (peers, investors, and competitors). Use those reflections for a sneak peek around the corner before you leap.