During his tenure as professor of Harvard Business School’s International Entrepreneurship course from 2005 to 2009, Daniel Isenberg has visited close to 100 ventures in 20 countries. He began to identify entrepreneurs as shrewd, hardworking, and relentlessly committed men and women of all ages, who are able to see and realize value where others overlook or downplay as worthless, impossible, and stupid.
Isenberg argues that these entrepreneurs are not larger-than-life superheroes from Silicon Valley, but accessible human beings. They may come from different parts of the world, but they are the same in their ability to create and capture extraordinary value.
Hoping to trigger some debate and discussion around the topic, he tells the stories of these contrarian entrepreneurs in his new book “Worthless, Impossible and Stupid”, where he offers three ways they shatter stereotypical perceptions of who is an entrepreneur.
Myth #1 – Entrepreneurs must be innovators.
While multiscreen cinemas were prevalent in Canada and the US during the 1990s, this was certainly not the case in Mexico. Harvard MBAs Adolfo Fastlicht, Miguel Davila, and Matthew Heyman felt there was a huge opportunity to import the idea.
They decided to put together a concept that they would attempt to bring to life. The project consumed much of their final year at school – they flew back and forth between Mexico and the US to validate their idea and put in 50 hours per week on the startup. The result was a 93-page document envisioning a cinema with 16 theatres, 158 screens, 32,800 seats, and $71.6 million in estimated annual revenues.
The entrepreneurs had a rough time with the venture. They were plagued with issues in financing, devaluation of the peso in 1994 by the Mexican government, and a union protest just days before its first multiplex opening in 1995. With each obstacle, the entrepreneurs fought back with fierce commitment and created opportunities out of adversity. Their venture Cinemex went on to transform the local cinema culture and sold for $300 million in 2002.
If there was any hint of innovation, Davila says they simply introduced lime juice and chili sauce on popcorn in place of butter. In the words of Isenberg, “Entrepreneurship? Si! Innovation? No!”
Myth #2 – Entrepreneurs must be experts.
Abhi Shah is the founder of Clutch Group, a legal process outsourcing company with offices in Chicago, New York, Washington, London, and Bangalore. Shah is by no means a legal expert. In fact he has never spent a day in the courtroom. Yet it is precisely the lack of legal training that Shah believes helped him see a gap in the market that he wouldn’t have noticed if he were an expert.
Shah knew that he wanted to start a business process outsourcing (BPO) venture in India but didn’t know which area he wanted to focus on, so he convinced Jerry Rao – the founder of BPO software company MphasiS – to agree to a summer internship. Shah thought it would give him access to learn from the CEO personally. Rao would later become an investor in Shah’s company.
Approaching graduation from Harvard Business School, Shah had trouble coming up with a viable idea. It was not until a dinner with friends who have finished law school and now work at large law firms that he saw how miserable they were, working long hours. Shah thought legal work could be outsourced. He convinced Harvard Law School to allow him to do a field study which gave him access to the general counsels of some of the Fortune 100 companies.
Using what he calls his “Ocean’s Eleven strategy” based on the movie about assembling a team to pull off a casino heist, and with Rao making a few phone calls, Shah added credibility to his business by recruiting key players. Since launching in 2006, the company has registered $25 million in revenues.
Myth #3 – Entrepreneurs must be young.
Unlike the twenty-something youngster in jeans and sneakers working on a mobile app at one of the local accelerators, Atsumasa Tochisako was 52 when he left a 30-year career at the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi to start Microfinance International Corporation (MFIC).
Tochisako is not alone. Many entrepreneurs profiled in the book founded companies in their forties and fifties. Research conducted in 2008 shows that baby boomers aged 55 to 64 had the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity, and that the average founder age was 40 for men and 41 for women.
Early in his career, Tochisako was dispatched to Mexico where he first realized that hardworking families did not get access to credit services. In one experience, José, the son of a family he befriended, was particularly delighted that he was visiting for dinner. Tochisako quickly realized it was because of his presence that the family ate meat that evening – something José had not done for months. Tochisako believed “the role of bank should be to add oxygen to every single corner of society and the economy”.
Determined to learn as much as he could to become a knowledge banker, Tochisako was rotated to Ecuador, then Peru where he learned that José had succumbed to a fever, and finally Atlanta. In Atlanta, he also noticed that immigrant populations were denied by traditional banks and paid large fees for money remittance services. In 2000, he was transferred to Washington, DC and, at 48, enrolled in a part-time MBA program.
With $430,000 from savings, friends, and cofounders, Tochisako started MFIC in 2003 to offer affordable banking services to immigrant families. When he quit his role as a top executive of the bank, his mentor warned that he was throwing everything away. But for the banker-turned-social entrepreneur, Tochisako believed it was exactly his banking experience in Latin America that would help him launch a profitable venture for a neglected community.
Worthless, Impossible and Stupid: How Contrarian Entrepreneurs Create and Capture Extraordinary Value. By Daniel Isenberg. Harvard Business Review; 304 pages; US $27.00/CDN $30.00/£17.00.
Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon.co.uk.
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