I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. When I was in college, I co-founded a company called Da Vinci Systems, then helped it grow into one of the most widely used desktop email tools in the world. Later in my career, leadership positions at venture capital firm Greylock and Internet consulting firm iXL provided more exciting opportunities to watch companies grow from the inside. And during my years as CEO of Silverpop, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing us transition from a company of a few dozen employees to a business of more than 500 serving 5,000 organizations across 42 countries.
Put another way, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to learn about how companies can successfully grow. And I’ve seen plenty of promising businesses fail. So, to all the aspiring entrepreneurs out there who are hoping to build up their own companies, here are three little nuggets of advice I’d like to offer up:
1) Manage to the Dunbar number.
In 1992, anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested that the part of the brain that governed social interactions in primates would vary in mass relative to the average size of their groups. Dunbar measured the neocortex of 38 kinds of primates and correlated it with the average size of their groupings. Low and behold, there was a straight line. And, when he extrapolated it to humans, the number came in just about 150.
For entrepreneurs, leaders or people developing social networking software, Dunbar’s number tells you that the relationships between people will evolve consistently until you cross about 150. At that point, everything changes.
Trust is no longer automatic among employees and leaders. Information will no longer flow organically and naturally. And, the culture tends to shift from a tight community to more of a hierarchical organizational feel. Some people describe it as a company losing its soul. I think of it as a necessary step on the path to bigger successes.
Like children growing up and moving out, this is a painful but entirely natural phenomenon. It is not good, nor is it bad.
As long as you get ready for it and you know it’s coming, you’ll be fine.
2) Get out of the office a few days a month.
As you scale your companies, one of the few things you can be sure of is that some of your original assumptions will be wrong. You can also be sure that there are likely to be game-changing ideas that will improve your business that remain undiscovered.
Back when I was at iXL, a board member gave me this advice: block off chunks of time on your calendar to get away from the daily grind and think about the business.
It took me a few years to really understand what he meant, but I now make it a top priority. While it can easily seem indulgent, it may be the most important thing I do. Every month or two, I take a day, or two when I can squeeze it in, and get away.
You see, operations will become entirely consuming. It’ll take everything you have just to keep your head above water. But most people don’t step away. Most people have no idea they should even consider it. Don’t make that mistake.
Try getting away by yourself sometimes. Other times, bring along the team and maybe a customer. Focus on the big business questions but don’t be afraid to have some fun and relax.
I can say, without a doubt, that many of the best ideas for my company have emerged from the out-of-the-office days I schedule.
3) Be what you are — and be passionate about it.
After decades of running companies, I’ve finally discovered the secret to being a successful executive. And if I could go back and tell one thing to my 25-year-old self, it would be this:
The secret to being a successful executive is to be whatever it is you already are with relentless, unapologetic passion. I am talking bat-crazy passionate.
You think you get a lot of push-back on your ideas? Just wait until you grow to $50 million — and then on to $200 million.
You’re no longer expected to be a rebel, and you’ll now face the greatest challenge of all: dogma.
I’ve watched hundreds of companies try to make the transition from small company to mid-sized and beyond, and most have failed or gone “horizontal.” The few that continued to skyrocket all had something in common: a deep-seated, almost irrational belief in what they were doing and why they were doing it.
My basic theory is that if critics and analysts and even venture capitalists knew the answers all the time, they’d be doing what you’re doing — building amazing businesses, driving huge value for customers and, hopefully, creating some meaningful wealth for yourself.
They may tell you they have all the answers. But the fact is there are no universal answers. There are no absolute truths. All I can tell you for sure is that the closest thing to your truth is that thing you are most passionate about. Listen to your critics, but in the end, go with your passions.
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