I’ve heard people describe themselves as serial entrepreneurs. I suppose I could say I am something of a cross-preneur: I like experimenting with *preneurial behaviors in different contexts. Serial *preneurship would bore me. I’ve been meaning to write something about entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship for the last few weeks, since it recently hit me that I have approximately a year of experience with each of these. My thoughts went, perhaps inevitably, from a list of differences, to a list of similarities, to an attempt at synthesis. I can’t claim to have achieved a synthesis — a definition of *preneurship say — but I’ve made some indirect progress by focusing on the concept of ‘cross-preneur’ (I’ll remove the hyphen if the term catches on). Here are some things I’ve learned about being a cross-preneur, defined as somebody capable of being *preneurial in multiple contexts.
Where I am coming from
I won’t dwell too much on my *preneurial experiences, but here is a quick sketch. I was the first employee (after the mom-pop founders) of sulekha.com, and was there for a year (2000-2001). Not quite the executive-chef stuff, but a sous-chef role at least. Where I am now, at Xerox, intrapreneurship is the mantra of the day (and I mean that in a good way), and I have been labeled as such and treated accordingly for about a year now (I could tell you why I’ve been labeled as such, but then I’d have to kill you). Of the other sorts of *preneurial experiences, I have experienced academic-entreprenurship-lite so to speak, for a couple of years, thanks to an indulgent postdoctoral adviser who essentially let me run my own research/teaching program, with my own students. I have had one opportunity to engage deeply with a social entrepreneur (I definitely wasn’t a participant though), which I wrote about several years ago. The one major sort of experience I haven’t been exposed to is probably *preneurship in a governmental context.
So let met try to extract some wisdom from those experiences. Here then are some elements of what it takes to be a cross-preneur, beyond any context-specific skills you may have learned as an intrapreneur, entrepreneur, tenure-track assistant professor or social reformer.
Five Lessons in Cross-preneurship
I’ll try to highlight the non-obvious lessons, and leave the “you have to have passion” sorts of trite observations alone. Each of these lessons follows the same pattern. Behaviors that you can afford to leave fixed constants in an unchanging “serial” *preneurship context have to become tunable variables in a “cross” context. So this list is essentially a list of constants that become variables.
- Networking-Relating Flexibility: Networkers are good at breaking the ice and starting relationships. Relators are good at sustaining relationships. It turns out that the relative amounts of these strengths needed vary by context. If you can’t vary your position on the spectrum, you can’t be a cross-preneur.
- Recalibrating people management heuristics: There are four basic ways of dealing with people — ignore them, work around them, work against them or work with them. In a given context, if you have the basic ability to read people, it is relatively easy to quickly zoom in on a set of heuristics that work in that domain, and tell you what to do with every person you run into. Once you get that, you will be very efficient at dealing with people. But this becomes a liability when you become a cross-preneur. Cross-preneurs have to consciously recalibrate. For example, ‘ignore’ is a more dangerous tactic in intrapreneurship than it is in entrepreneurship.
- Degree of Ideology-Independence: This is one of the most startling insights I’ve had. All *preneurers in any context must be less ideological than their less *preneurial peers, since religious belief of any flavor ultimately constrains you. But how far out you go in pragmatic ideology-agnosticism varies. You need a lot more ideology in social contexts, because a lot more can go wrong. Not taking sides in a Linux vs. Windows religious war is a good thing. Not taking sides in Nazi Germany meant possibly condoning the Holocaust. So in making a cross-preneurial move, always ask yourself: how much ideology does this domain need and can I stir up the required level and intensity of ideological belief?
- The Detachment-Commitment Tradeoff: The paradoxical notion of detached passion applies to all *preneurial endeavors. This is the ability to work with absolute passion, but grin, lick your wounds and walk away whenever you fail, because ultimately you aren’t attached to outcomes. But in practice, detached-passion often becomes a sort of “willing to walk away” derring-do. For a long time, this was one of my most prized traits. I have always been willing to laugh and walk away from any situation, no matter how much I’ve invested, or how much I’ve been hurt by failing. But lately, the realization has been dawning upon me that different *preneurial contexts call for different amounts of commitment to positive outcomes for others. You have to have detached-passion for the sake of your own sanity, but you have to have commitment to the winning outcome for the sake of others who’ve believed in you. Walking away from your struggling startup is not too bad — your smart programmers will find other jobs. Walking away from an AIDS-stricken African village that possibly pinned its hopes on your social-entrepreneurial efforts isn’t quite as morally okay.
- Developing an Internal Portability Checkpoint: More often than I like, I catch myself making statements beginning with, “When I was first employee of an Internet startup…” This doesn’t bother me because of the obvious aspect of attempting to milk past experiences to gain present-day credibility (if I think you’ll buy the line, I’ll sell it). It bothers me because it is symptomatic of a kind of thinking that says there is a formula that is gospel truth. Maybe that works for serial entrepreneurs. For cross-preneurs, this is a dangerous tendency. To counteract it, cross-preneurs need to develop a conscious internal checkpoint. Any time it appears that you are applying ideas from another domain, ask yourself, “does this really apply here?” Answering that question will be good no matter what the answer is. If it is “yes” the introspection will make for a stronger cross-pollination of ideas. If “no” you’ll have saved yourself a potentially dumb error. My points 1-4 came out of asking such questions.
Do you have any more to add?