This week, I talked to Mike Gardner about how the entrepreneur’s life has changed radically in the last decade. We talked about how marketing data has sped up the startup phase, how we’ve lost the honeymoon phase, why we need more humility, how business has a lot more in common with sailboats and guided missiles than they do with bullets and arrows, why perfection isn’t useful in business, why it’s hard to admit we’re off course, why constant course-correction is the best way to navigate, why investors and boards of directors’ often slow growth, and why having skin in the game can get in the way.
Mike is a serial entrepreneur, who is actively leading several startups, and who has had several successful exits. He’s also an adjunct professor at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, and winner of the 2018 ACG Deal of the Year. He’s also the leader of a Giant Leap peer mentoring group in Vancouver.
What follows are excerpts from our conversation.
On what’s changed about being an entrepreneur
We now have data at a rate that we’ve never had before. The old adage was, “50% of my marketing works. I just don’t know which 50%.” But we have so much more information available to us now, with more rapid methods and tools and techniques, that we have the ability, on a very short cycle, to test and verify before we amplify.
It used to be that we’d spend a long time planning a campaign, putting a campaign together, getting it out there, waiting for the responses, and then seeing if the people show up at the storefront, whatever that might be. But today, we have so many tools that tell us whether people are actually engaging at different parts of our communication, whether they’re paying attention to our messages, whether our messages are resonating all the way along the chain — which we used to have to go and survey, ask, give away coupons, and do other things to try to find out whether or not we were actually connecting with people.
So it’s great that there are so many tools. But it’s also overwhelming, because you need to know so much more. There’s what your business does, and then there’s how your business goes to market. And how your business goes to market is a very different game today than it was even ten years ago.
On how there’s a short honeymoon now, for better and worse
All of this great data shortens the honeymoon period. When you have a great entrepreneurial idea, and you’re taking it out to the market, you’re excited by it. In fact, you’re probably the most excited by it of anybody. And part of what draws those first customers in is your enthusiasm, and how revved up you are about whatever idea you have. Well, if it’s a protracted period of time before you get any feedback as to whether or not you’ve established product-market fit, and whether you’re actually getting value to the customer: well, that’s a long honeymoon period. And for the old school entrepreneur, the startup period — where you’re hanging up signs and talking to people in the street, and giving away free coffee, and having chats — were some of the best, happiest days of their life.
But now it’s so quick, that you have to adjust and pivot extraordinarily fast. And it’s actually often that you have a bucket of cold water being thrown on the question of whether your business idea is any good. You find out pretty quickly, through the tech stack, that the numbers aren’t looking good for your idea. And so from the entrepreneurial perspective, it’s both empowering and incredibly humbling. It’s often devastating, because we are emotionally committed to the businesses that we’re in. Entrepreneurs feel that more so than ever before, and they feel it earlier. I think we need to see this shortened period as a good thing, because these lessons have to be learned no matter what, so it’s better if you learn them early.
On why we need more humility these days
One of the things that I impress upon my MBA students at the University of British Columbia is that businesses have a lot more in common with sailboats and guided missiles than they do with bullets and arrows —which is the common metaphor. People say business is a rifle shot, or it’s an arrow straight down the middle. And I tell my students that you don’t actually want to be an arrow, because then you can’t change course. If the target moves slightly, if the conditions change a little bit, it doesn’t work.
Business is much more like a sailboat, right? The currents and the wind are continuously taking us off course and we’re continuously course correcting. It’s about adjusting. But the idea that you are off course is, I think, frightening to a lot of entrepreneurs.
‘I’m more off course than on’
If you lack humility, then when you’re going off course, the bravado kicks in, and you’re like, ‘No, I’m doing things the right way.’
Humility is about understanding that I’m actually more off course than I am on course — and that’s ok. As long as I can quickly recognize that, and also identify what corrections I need to make so I don’t either over-correct or under-correct and it takes me too long to get there, and I burn up all my resources doing so.
Humility is also understanding the fact that if we walk into a business with this idea of perfection — which is often perpetuated by boards of directors — it doesn’t work.
On how staying on course slows us down
A board of directors can lean on entrepreneurs, saying, ‘I thought the course was this, how come you’re not sticking to it? How come you’re not the arrow?’ We have to get that out of our psyche.
The reality is that as a business, you are more often off course than you are on. But it can be very difficult to stand in front of your board of directors or your investors, and be talking about being off course all the time. So maybe to protect your own ego or because we’re feeling insecure, we don’t have a very open conversation. We don’t say, “I feel like we’re two degrees off course, but maybe we’re seven.”
And, despite all the new data that’s available, it’s still not a GPS-measured world that we live in when it comes to business. It’s less precise than that. It isn’t even as good as sports, where there are so many cameras on everybody, and so many analysts, and they can draw the lines. This is way more in the gray, and we need to embrace that reality.
On the good and bad of having skin in the game
If you’re on the board of directors, chances are you have some investment, you’ve got some stake, which means you’re a biased participant in the whole thing. You bought into the enthusiasm, and you want it to work. And maybe you work in an investment fund, so you don’t want to have to go back to your own people and say,
“Here’s the fourth one of my investments that’s currently off course that needs to be course-corrected.” Because, if you’ve only got four investments and all four of them are off course at the exact same time, well, now you have a hard conversation. So you’re biased.
Having a peer mentoring group is an opportunity to have very open conversations. Like, “I think I’m two degrees off course, but in the back of my mind, there’s a little voice saying, I think I might be 20.”
The people in your group don’t have a dog in that hunt, right? So they can say, “It sure feels like you should be cranking to the right a little bit right now, don’t you think?”
Mike Gardner is “an award winning C-suite executive, entrepreneur, and founder, with international experience in fintech software, capital raising, strategic planning and operations in the health care, merchant card services, wealth management, mortgage finance, insurance, utilities, utility billing, logistics and transportation industries.” He is the founder of Property Fox, and runs an active consultancy with clients in health care, fintech, and streaming entertainment. He is an adjunct professor at UBC Sauder School of Business.
Mike leads a Giant Leap peer mentoring group in Vancouver. Find out more about peer mentoring.