03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Just Listen Microsoft - An Opportunist Does Not a Visionary Make

With the release of Windows 7 and Microsoft hoping it will reverse their luck after Vista, I was reminded of a recent appearance on This Week in Startups hosted by Jason Calacanis and our discussion about the difference between an opportunist and a visionary.

An opportunist* by nature sees something that is already out there, and then focuses on a way to ruthlessly beat the competition, create barriers to entry and race ahead. That head start can give an opportunist a short runway advantage over the competition, but there's no guarantee that others won't find a way to catch up and beat them. Microsoft was opportunistic when it jumped out with Windows to lift sole proprietor status of the user friendly interface from Apple"s first Macintosh. It did the same again with Microsoft Office which quickly became the 800 pound gorilla, outmaneuvering WordStar and WordPerfect for market share dominance. But Google beat the crap out of Internet Explorer not to mention Yahoo as far as the search market is concerned.

Opportunists are about extending a grasp in an already competitive environment. They are about being grabby and when they have the clout of a Microsoft about being "pushy."

A visionary by nature is about seeing something that doesn't exist. It's not about extending human grasp and outgrabbing the competition; it's about extending human experience and going beyond the imagination. Walt Disney was a visionary because he extended the human experience from what his wife referred to as a "dirty" amusement park into not just a "theme park" but "The Happiest Place on Earth."

"When I started on Disneyland, my wife used to say, 'But why do you want to build an amusement park? They're so dirty.' I told her that was just the point -- mine wouldn't be. Disneyland would be a world of Americans, past and present, seen through the eyes of my imagination -- a place of warmth and nostalgia, of illusion and color and delight." - Walt Disney

From a practical standpoint, one of the other advantages of a vision over an opportunity is that it extends your runway, because you are so far beyond everyone else. That may explain why Apple so fiercely guards the opening presentations of its visionary products. When they are finally revealed, it is so clear how they have outdistanced the competition that many would be competitors don't even bother trying. Think of how the iphone has done just that to the competition and how unreliable and unsatisfying its competitors' products have been (such as the Blackberry Storm).

One of the problems with a number of founders and entrepreneurs that I discussed with Jason is that many of them are the first to seize an opportunity or market share (a la Microsoft) and are hailed by the world as visionaries, but then turn out to be transactional opportunists without the capacity to rise above their "deal minded" myopia to see, much less execute a vision. John Sculley turned out to be no Steve jobs (part 1) and Steve Ballmer is turning out to be no Bill Gates.

With some deep listening and a little prodding, such founders and entreprenuers have often revealed their paranoid fears to me of being exposed as an opportunist/deal makers in visionary/successful businessman's clothing. The more anxious they become that they can't repeat that first success, the more often they become hostile, difficult to work with, "terrors" at work and then are barely able to contain their anxiety out in the investment world where they're trying to court new capital.

What's fascinating is that once they share this all too common fear, they exhale -- physically, psychologically and emotionally. It is as if a huge monkey is lifted off their backs. It is also as if their minds were overloaded modems that have been disconnected, powered down, rested, powered up and then rebooted. Suddenly they have new bandwidth and begin to see other possibilities and they start visualizing. They also realize that even if they were the original visionary or opportunist or whatever, they don't have to be the sole visionary anymore.

Jason Calacanis spoke about this in our interview when he explained how visions can be culled from all kinds of places by just listening and observing and having your people listen and observe what's out there in the market place and what's really on your customers and clients' minds and in their hearts, their deepest fears, their greatest dreams and beyond their imagination.

* I have been appropriately called to task by my good friend, astute coach and NPR host, Marty Nemko, for bad mouthing the many entrepreneurs who have made this country great as "grabby" and opportunistic. I love entrepreneurs. My fellow psychiatrists see me as an entrepreneur. I don't have an issue with the true entrepreneurs who see themselves as entrepreneurs. The people I have issue with are those entrepreneurs who are seen as visionaries when they really aren't, and like that moniker. It's as if they are much smarter than they are bright and want the world to think of them as brighter than they really are. (And many of them think of themselves as smart, when in reality they were luckier than smart) Then they begin to act badly out of the fear of being exposed as merely smart rather than bright.