Meet Your New Role Model: The Workhorse

I never liked the term Unicorn. It never made sense to me to aspire to something mythical and therefore of theoretical value.

I’ve written before about the risks associated with trying to make unicorns and the fact that entrepreneurs are the ones who bare the burden of the risks associated with a go big or stay home company building philosophy. Unfortunately, over the past several years, tech-entrepreneurship seemed to become synonymous with making unicorns. If you weren’t working toward a billion dollar valuation in short order, you were wasting your time and the time of all of the investors to whom you were pitching your business plan.

For entrepreneurs who – for the past five years – have been enamored to achieve unicorn status, it may be time to leave the horn envy behind. The Great Reset is on and tech CEO’s need to adapt their value creation philosophy to the constraints of the current financing markets.

Perhaps it is time for us to re-imagine our role model. Several of the doom and gloom articles I’ve read have proposed the cockroach as the new role model for tech-entrepreneurs. Having reflected on this a bit, going from unicorns to cockroaches feels like a bit of an over-steer to me. I understand there is a survivalist instinct triggered by the kind of valuation correction the markets are experiencing. But cockroaches are disgusting and while they are certainly master survivalists having been around for 340 million years, they aren’t a particularly appealing role-model with which to affiliate.

I also don’t think that the Great Reset is an “end of times” scale event. The Great Reset is more a calling back to fundamentals than a mass extinction.

WorkhorseA less extreme change in role model is called for.

Out with the Unicorns.

In with the Workhorses.

I like the workhorse as a role-model that is appropriate for the current state of the private financing markets. Workhorses are smart, tough, sturdy, dependable, docile and patient. They are strong, even in the presence of a storm. Workhorses are durable and adaptable. Oh, and workhorses aren’t mythical.

Think of the workhorse as an evolved unicorn. The unicorn is of mythical value. The horn was useless and the magic isn’t real. Workhorses are are evolved in that they are producers of fundamental value. They do real work and solve real problems.

Don’t mistake me for suggesting that the companies that have been anointed with unicorn status aren’t of value. Quite the contrary, I think that most of the “unicorns” are actually workhorses in disguise and most are phenomenally valuable. It is the mythology surrounding the unicorn craze and the resulting disconnect between valuation and fundamental value that has been the problem, not the unicorns themselves.

Unicorn mythology has warped investor sentiment and entrepreneur behavior and expectations in unproductive ways causing all to take the collective eye off the real task at hand – building fiscally disciplined businesses with sound unit economics that are of fundamental value.

Shed the horn-envy; turn your unicorn wannabe into a workhorse.

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Vulnerability and Entrepreneurship

I was browsing through the new Tattered Cover store in the recently renovated Union Station in Denver a few weeks back and found myself standing in the Business Psychology section of the store. For some reason, I have a habit of finding that section without trying – gravity seems to pull me there. In any event, I started thumbing through a book by Brene Brown, named Daring Greatly. The subtitle of Daring Greatly reads: “How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead.” There aren’t many books that stand-out to me as having altered my world view; Daring Greatly definitely did.

I had not heard of Brene Brown’s work before I picked up the book. Brown is a researcher professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social work and has spent the past the past ten years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity and shame. This is pretty delicate subject matter; the kind of stuff our culture causes us to fear talking about an open, authentic and empathetic way. But her work strikes me as incredibly important as we struggle to counter-balance cultural cues which cause us to suppress self-doubt and hide insecurity in favor of bravado (false bravery). The book also includes important insights for entrepreneurs and leaders.

There are so many great takeaways from the book and one has to read it to get the full picture. For me, several concepts stood out.

  • Vulnerability and weakness are not one in the same, despite the fact that our culture confuses the two. Expressing vulnerability is a constructive process, not a character flaw.
  • Shame is the greatest barrier that impedes our willingness/ability to make ourselves vulnerable. Fear of shame causes us to hide our vulnerability from others.
  • Shame and guilt are not one in same. Shame says: I am [bad, lazy, fill in the blank] and there nothing I can do about it. Guilt says: I did something bad and, I don’t want to do it again and it is within my power to change the behavior that led to the bad act. Shame hides in a corner trying to stay out of sight, guilt is self-correcting.
  • We admire vulnerability when we see it in others, but we abhor seeing it in ourselves. We are blind to the fact that coming to grip with our vulnerabilities makes us stronger.
  • We all have shame… yes you too. Shame is the enemy. The way to defeat shame is through dialogue. Shame hates being outed, so in order to defeat shame, we have to talk about it.
  • One cannot be courageous until they are willing to make themselves vulnerable. Vulnerability is the root of courage. You have to be willing to make yourself vulnerable before you can dare greatly.

It helps to look at this through the lens of an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs take on incredible risk when they start a business, because the risk of failure is so high. Our society abhors failure and as a result fear of a failure is a huge shame trigger for most people. Entrepreneurs must to overcome this fear of failure (and the social stigma associated with failure) before they even start. They must be able to say to themselves:

I am passionate about what I am doing. Although I will strive to succeed, I might fail. But if I fail, I will do so knowing that I have the pursued my passion, given my best and that is enough for me, regardless of what others think.

IMHO, there is no shame in failure for an entrepreneur. Quite the contrary, entrepreneurs should take great pride in their accomplishments regardless of the eventual outcome of their work. This philosophy which permeates healthy entrepreneurial cultures is well summed up by a quote from President Theodore Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena speech.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

– Theodore Roosevelt

If you don’t have the time or inclination to read Daring Greatly, I’d encourage you to listen to Brene’s TED talk on vulnerability. I’m betting hearing her speak will cause you to want to read the book.

Kudos to Brene Brown for going to the uncomfortable places in human psychology. It is no surprise that a thoughtful look at what makes us most uncomfortable can lead to so much insight.

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