Recently, I did a workshop with some young entrepreneurs — mostly, I would say, between 24 and 38 — and I soon realized that in this new and enlightened age, every conversation about entrepreneurship seems to include the same 10 words, words that have become a new jargon. At the same time, one very important but old-fashioned word seems to have been all but forgotten.
Don’t get me wrong. Most of these words have some value, but many of them are misunderstood, or are euphemisms, or are overused. So here is my Top 10 list. Sprinkle them through any conversation about entrepreneurship, and you will sound progressive and “in the know.” But think about what you are really saying.
Passion. You hear this all the time, usually in a sentence like this: “If you follow your passion, the money will follow.” While passion is clearly important, this is probably the most destructive and misleading cliché about starting your own business. Lots of businesses fail, and most of the people who started them had plenty of passion. What they may have lacked is business acumen, or money, or customers who were willing to pay the right price. And here’s a related thought: It’s great to hire employees with passion, but they should also be competent.
Team. I’m sorry, but just because you insist on calling your employees a team does not necessarily mean they work well together or get the job done. Personally, I think teams play sports, and in sports there are a lot of missed plays, fumbles and mistakes. And most sports teams lose about half of the time. Business should be about flawless execution and getting the job done. But then again, I am old. I do understand that the term is well intended.
Corporate Culture. This notion of parties, Ping-Pong tables, dress-up days, bringing your dog to work and emphasizing having fun may be a good way to find and keep staff members, but it says nothing about how the company treats customers. I think corporate culture should also be about how far the company will go for customers, how much is expected from employees, how employees are expected to treat other employees, and what results are expected. I believe in a customer-driven culture.
Transparency. There are many times when transparency is valuable and constructive. There certainly should be more of it in government, and it can be helpful in finding, training and developing a staff. Customers can appreciate it. But it is not the be-all and end-all. Is it anyone else’s business if the owner decides to lend $10,000 to a valuable employee who gets in trouble? Not everything should be transparent.
Challenges. Back in the old days, we called them problems. Today, that sounds too negative. And we certainly don’t want to be negative! But there is a difference between a challenge and a problem: Trying to improve your website’s conversion rate or to find good people is a challenge. Losing your house or having to fire your brother-in-law is a problem. Both words have their place.
Scale. Will this business scale? Listen to you sounding like a venture capitalist! But I don’t know if that means growing to two stores or 10,000 stores, going international or going public, making you a billionaire or finding one crucial employee to help you do some of the work. But it is such a big word that it doesn’t need any more conversation. Checkmate! If a business can scale, no one dares to ask any more questions.
Funding. “I’m looking for funding,” sounds big time and sexy. But the question is, do you have a viable business plan, or better yet, have you had any success? The fact is, most businesses are started with savings, credit cards, and money from family and friends. Very few people get venture capital — at least outside of technology companies. I admit it. I am not a big shot. I have never raised investment money. But I have built my business to more than 100 employees with my own — and sometimes the bank’s — money. Maybe I am a medium shot.
If you don’t already, watch “Shark Tank.” It is a good show for starting to understand business. It often features entrepreneurs, and I use the term loosely, who have no clue what they are doing. And after they get beaten bloody by the sharks, often for good reason, they leave the shark tank and look into the camera and say, “No one is going to stop me from reaching my dream!” I cringe, because you can see that they didn’t hear a word. I wish they would say, “I’m going to go back and rethink my plan.” There is a thin line between vision and delusion.
Accountable. For many years, I have seen this word spread like kudzu. Yes, politicians should be accountable, companies should be accountable, and employees should be accountable. But in business, especially if it is your business, people should be held responsible. It is not the same thing. Do you want to hire a babysitter who is accountable or responsible? Holding someone responsible means that person has to fix the problem or pay consequences. Accountable is responsible without a response. Maybe it is thatnegative thing again.
Motivation. People always ask me what I do to motivate employees. I always tell them the same thing. There are many ways to motivate people: money, promotions, titles, trips, awards, parties and more. But before I worry about any of those, I would consider the hundreds of ways that people can be demotivated: being yelled at; not being reviewed on time; having to work with people who are abusive, incompetent, or lazy; not being given clear directions. There are many more.
Business Model. I actually like this term. It really does have meaning, and it covers everything people should pay attention to, including that word I mentioned that has been all but forgotten. And what is that word? Profit. I believe that we are living through a period in which growth is wildly overemphasized and profit is frequently ignored. How do I know? When I talk to entrepreneurs who throw around all of the above terms, as I frequently do, they look startled when I ask whether they are making a profit. But then again, as I told you, I’m old!