April 1, 2012

Think and Act Like a World-Class Entrepreneur

by John W. Stout

Perhaps the most frequent question I am asked by technical people is on the order of, “What languages/technologies should I learn to be ready for the next wave?” For example, recently I was asked by a client, “I understand that [widely used commercial platform] is going away and being replaced by HTML5, is that right? Should we be preparing for that?” The questioner was a well-respected client, and I was temporarily tongue-tied at how to answer the question. While my crystal ball is as good as anyone’s (note: irony), I hate to answer such a question, mostly because I am continually surprised at how unkillable many earlier technologies seem to be.

So what is good advice to give someone?

Definitely keep your technical skills sharp. But also invest in skills other than new languages or platforms.

The business environment changes so rapidly now—every few years it seems there is a disruptive event that necessitates fast action to stay on top—that banking on technical knowledge to see one through a business or economic disruption is akin to rolling the dice and hoping that your technical skills will help you weather the storm all by themselves.

Perhaps the best advice I can give is to think and act like an entrepreneur, especially a world-class entrepreneur. In particular, it’s worth developing and honing skills that world-class entrepreneurs count on, not only to survive, but to prosper. Here are some of these skills:

  1. Think for yourself. While keeping themselves open to inspiration, new ideas and honest expert opinions, successful entrepreneurs typically think for themselves, and keep their own counsel, which is how they are able to create new realities and develop solutions that no one else has before them. In our business, that applies by not jumping on a technology bandwagon just because a marketing department or person with a vested interest has convinced industry media of that technology’s impending market domination.
  2. If a world-class entrepreneur is going to take advice, that advice is taken from someone who knows what he or she is talking about. Sounds all too logical, but how often have we seen someone who failed to pursue a dream or made a decision based on the advice of someone whose own knowledge of the subject was only what they “heard from an expert” or was simply one of those “everybody knows” platitudes. Avoid the associate with lots of ideas but not much action who is all too eager to give advice to anyone who will listen. Also be wary of a member of the media, who may or may not be well-intended, who is too often just a step ahead of his readers in his knowledge of a subject. Accept advice from those who have already been successful in the way you intend to be successful.
  3. Learn to sell. World-class entrepreneurs know how to sell. Sales is a bad word to many of us, whether or not we’re technical, and that’s usually because we’ve had to endure so many bad salespeople. Whether you are in a technical or technical management role, your career is going to be enhanced by learning effective sales techniques. These will help you in hiring, getting buy-in on projects and support, as well as filling a sales engineer role. Sales expertise can also help you with career stability and longevity: no successful company is likely to turn away an effective revenue-generator.
  4. Recognize that customer-focus is your lifeblood. World-class entrepreneurs know that it’s all about how they serve their customers, and that their success is completely dependent on the privilege of serving them. On that point, I asked the most successful entrepreneur I know for his best advice. He said, “Listen to your customers.” That means listen to what they are telling you, ask if you have to, and don’t assume anything. Focus on creating a better experience for your customers based on what they’ve told you. That’s too often considered tough to do by classic “heads-down” technical people, but more and more we’re seeing companies that want their technical staff to be customer-facing and customer-driven. The aforementioned sales training is one way to improve your skills at this.

It’s a wild time to be in the technology business. The industry is heating up, demand for talent and results are as high as they have ever been, and industry leadership is shifting. All of this accompanied by a worldwide political and economic scene that seems to be in daily flux. Survive and prosper by developing in yourself new types of skills to augment what you can already do.

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