Building a company has never been easier. Free software, fast computers and 3D printing, all enhanced by the “interweb”, make it a simple(r) matter to research, design, create, market, and even sell a range of products with only a small up-front capital investment and limited (if not a single-person) workforce. The game is well and truly afoot for anybody with a good idea, a strong work ethic, and an appetite to take a chance. But this freedom is a double-edged sword: even if you do have the ultimate killer idea, you still have to be smart to get your product noticed, backed, built, and adopted, which requires a range of activities from funding, negotiation, and recruitment through to sales, manufacture, and support – the skill-set, essentially, of the entrepreneur. Now, there are many parallels between the creation of a new organisation and the birth of a new project, and thus shared ground between the entrepreneur and the project manager, and I will shortly consider just two: project initiation and project approach. First though, we should note that there are differences too, but I would argue not particularly meaningful ones. For instance, unless you are a director it is unlikely that you will ever be called upon to inject your own cash into each new initiative, but you’ll still be asked to put another “balance sheet” item on the line: your reputation. As Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame puts it, your reputation is “what people say about you when you’re not in the room” – a critical asset that can ensure a steady flow of commissions for the foreseeable future.
So let’s explore where we can apply an entrepreneurial approach to our own undertakings. The first of the two areas I’d like to discuss is that of project (or business) start-up. However good you and your idea are, you will likely still need some degree of funding and/or engagement to proceed, so forget about your “project manager” title and try to think like an entrepreneur. How will you convince your potential investors (i.e. your project sponsors) to buy-in to your story and come along for the ride, and if it were your company would you produce reams of documentation and flash presentations or do you think you could present a far stronger case if you had a working model to present instead? Clearly which way you go depends on the circumstances, but many successful entrepreneurs do utilise this new democratised “maker” environment by creating an initial prototype to get the relevant people’s attention on sites such as Kickstarter (subsequently pushing the product via established sales channels like Amazon, and refining their offering based on customer feedback). I try to approach each kick-off and funding meeting in the same way: how can I sway (my often recalcitrant) project board to believe that my proposal is worth their investment, and what can I show them to back up my claims?
A second important area concerns how you will actually run your endeavour. I’m sure that project managers of all persuasions (Agile, Traditional, or any hybrid thereof) would agree that lean decision-making, focused effort, and the ability to respond immediately to change are critical facets of a successful undertaking, and the way I attempt to “live” these characteristics (often the difference between a killer product and mere shelfware that never sees the light of day) is by treating each new commission as though I were actually running a new company – after all, when I take on responsibility for a new project aren’t I really just putting myself out there as an entrepreneur? So let’s say that you have (or have been given) a workable idea, and that somebody – be they investor or project sponsor – has given you the nod to continue. How should you attempt to negotiate the minefield of decisions and actions that will face you in the coming months? One approach is to subscribe to “groupthink”, a phenomenon whereby an ever-expanding group of people is collected to “decide and guide” your efforts. In my opinion, such a death by committee is merely a place for good ideas to go to die and is a poor approach for anything except the largest of undertakings. Indeed, in How to Get Rich, Felix Dennis derides the call to form a committee as its driving force is “the desire to apportion blame that may accrue later” and, in any case, “the risks remain, however much talking is done.” Think like an empresario. The most convincing way to proceed is surely to get on with making and marketing saleable iterations of your product (remember that the original iPad didn’t have a camera!) – an approach best-served by making pertinent decisions on the job as required rather than by a basement-full of business analysts. Involve too many people in your project and you’ll never get conclusive agreement, entering instead the vicious circle of analysis paralysis where everybody is too scared to actually do anything in case there is one person out there in the big bad world who doesn’t agree. Take care though. Even if you do manage to set up a lean, mean project organisation far from the madding project board, there is always the temptation of falling into decision-avoidance mode (the “fear of making the wrong call”) which can be even worse than groupthink. This manifests itself in a variety of ways. For example, how many times have you heard a project manager or consultant confidently announce that “a decision needs to be made about this”? Surely these are just “weasel words” designed to put off important discussions to some interminable point for some interminable group in the future? Well, for the entrepreneur the time for thinking is over…. it’s time to actually do something!
In the end, success in any venture is dependent on many factors, but perhaps the most important for the entrepreneur is confidence in their own abilities. Returning once again to Felix Dennis in How to Get Rich: “without self-belief, nothing can be accomplished; with it, nothing is impossible”. Treat every new project as a corporate start-up, and you may just become the next Larry Page.