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Business Owners Should be Happy

The following is a response to an article in Entrepreneur Magazine.  By Malachi Leopold, President & Executive Producer of Left Brain/Right Brain Productions, LLC

When I read Mark Stevens’ (author of Your Marketing Sucks) article “Why Business Owners Should Never Be Happy” on Entrepreneur.com, a few thoughts came to mind.  The first is about balance.  The vast majority of entrepreneurs I know are also some of the most fulfilled people I know.  They have a sense of satisfaction in their day-to-day work and efforts while at the same time exhibiting a constant drive to improve, to build upon, to create, experiment, innovate.  I didn’t get the impression that Stevens literally thinks business owners should be “unhappy” in the sense of not enjoying life, or even their day-to-day work for that matter.  I perceive it as a statement against complacency, and it’s a point with which I agree.  I do, however, think that there’s a balance to be found between satisfaction and the relentless pursuit of higher performance.

I was reminded of an interview I did with GrubHub COO and co-founder Mike Evans during filming for Trep Life. (Trep Life is a new webTV series which I produce and direct.  The show gives viewers a unique, 360-degree view of what it takes to succeed as an entrepreneur, or “trep.”  The first 12 episodes feature individuals such as Mike Samson and Ross Kimbarovsky of crowdSpring, and Genevieve Thiers and Dan Ratner of SitterCity.  Find out more about the series and watch episodes at TreppingOut.com.)

Finding Balance

Mike Evans spoke of struggling with taking the time to celebrate the company’s successes before moving on to the next thing.  He felt it was important to recognize an achievement, take a breath, look around, enjoy it – then continue on.  Finding that balance is tricky – when one’s M.O. is “peddle to the floor,” it can definitely be a challenge to take the time to stop and take things in, to breathe a little.  Plus, if work itself is often so satisfying, taking pause can almost feel like stopping the music.  But, if one is dedicated to building a “scalable and sustainable” business, as Stevens states we must be, I think the ability to find balance is actually a necessary component of sustainability.  The long, hard road to an ever greater level of performance needs to have moments when an employee – or the entrepreneur for that matter – feels a pat on the back, a warm hug, or even receives a simple text or email recognizing their efforts and contribution to the growth of the enterprise.  Using Stevens’ war metaphor, even soldiers need R&R.

Shifting Language

Given other articles and books Stevens has written, I sense he appreciates a certain use of language, specific semantics such as “declaring war,” “cancer of complacency,” and “thrilling” customers (vs satisfying them).  Language that sometimes borders on hyperbole, is a bit dramatic, but gets the point across.  I find the “declaring war” metaphor interesting for several reasons.  First, with the example of a business owner who exhibited the sign on his desk “The Boss Is Not Happy,” I don’t know if I would personally interpret it as a declaration of war on himself or his employees, but I get the idea of not allowing complacency to set in.  Second, I don’t know if his suggestions listed in the article actually sound like war in the sense of taking extreme action.  “Thrilling” vs “satisfying” customers to me requires learning more about what Stevens thinks this looks like in the real world.  I didn’t find the differentiation between “thrilling” and “satisfying” a customer compelling enough to think “yeah, I should be doing that.”  Plus, I think customer loyalty is often only as good as the last interaction a customer has with one’s enterprise.

As to “getting out of the office and into the field” – I admit I found the reference to Undercover Boss (referenced in the article as “Undercover CEO,” but I’m assuming Stevens meant the CBS series Undercover Boss) a little funny.  In part because I don’t know if any of the corporate executives featured on the show are individuals I would describe as entrepreneurs.  (They seem more to me the epitome of executives in “Corporate America” – from Hooters’ Coby Brooks, who took the company’s reins from his father, to DirecTV’s Mike White, whose career has included stints at PepsiCo and Frito-Lay.)  But more so because I think one of the hallmarks of most entrepreneurs I know is that they tend to have a much harder time NOT rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty.

For example, when I met serial entrepreneur Howard Tullman for the first time, he greeted me at his new TRIBECA Flashpoint Academy wearing a paint-spattered t-shirt, work shorts, and sported a leather tool belt complete with a hammer, screwdrivers, and a power drill.  He was, literally, helping build his newest enterprise.  During an interview for his episode of Trep Life, he said, “When you make demands on people, they see you side-by-side, they see you with the mop if the water main breaks, they see you doing whatever it takes to model the behavior that leads to success.”

Lastly, I couldn’t help but wonder if women entrepreneurs would identify with the war language.  I posed the question to a couple of women we’re featuring on the Trep Life series, and here’s what designer Lara Miller had to say:  “The idea of declaring war on yourself or on your business is counter-productive and downright depressing.  The idea of displaying a sign that says ‘the boss is never happy’ could be a little humorous or tongue in cheek, but it presents a negative and anxious attitude that will resonate through your company and to your employees.  Fear is a motivator, but I think success and encouragement are much stronger, more pure motivators.”

Plus, not for anything, but going back to the Undercover Boss reference, 15 of the 16 individuals featured on the show so far are men.  My intent isn’t to write this as an article exploring the percentage of women executives in the American workforce, but I did find it interesting that Stevens, when discussing Undercover Boss, uses the following language:  “When Charles Revson was building Revlon into a powerhouse, he would allocate part of his time manning the customer complaint line. We wanted a clear, undiluted sense of how the company was pleasing, or failing to do so, the women who spent money on his products.  Of course you have to spend most of your time making leadership decisions, but if you watch Undercover [Boss], you will see that every time the boss goes out and does what she used to think was below her, she comes away with a powerful epiphany.”

To date, 15 of the 16 people featured on the show are men – only 1 is a woman.  Why is Charles Revson, a man who, in his own words, built Revlon by “being a bastard,” singled out as being a good example of working in the trenches?  But “if you watch Undercover [Boss], you will see that every time the boss goes out and does what she (emphasis added) used to think was below her, she comes away with a powerful epiphany”?  I think this may warrant further exploration in a separate blog post.

In summary – although I don’t strongly identify with the idea of “declaring war on ourselves,” I agree that complacency can be deadly to the growth of an enterprise.  But I think, more than the need to declare war on ourselves, we need to find ways to find a balance in our lives which supports our ability as enterprise leaders to successfully build a scalable and sustainable venture.

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