Henry Ford had his do-or-die moment in 1908. Dubbed “Crazy Henry” when he built his first car a decade earlier, Ford now had a crazier dream: He wanted to create a car for the masses.
He picked a small room in his factory and stuffed it with designers, milling machines, and drill presses. Ford sat in his mother’s “lucky” rocking chair. His competitors were thrilled. “How soon will Ford blow up?” they asked.
Finally, investors gathered for the unveiling. Workers hoisted the engine 50 feet in the air and began lowering it into the chassis. But as it descended, the engine started spinning faster and faster until it broke free of the ropes and smashed to the ground.
This was Ford’s test: Go big or go home?
He quietly stepped forward and announced he would personally build a replacement. Six months later the Model T made its debut. It would sell 15 million cars over the next 20 years.
Every entrepreneur I know has faced one of these “engine-of-the-floor” moments — a critical juncture that determines whether your idea goes huge or falls flat. I’ve mentored 1,000 entrepreneurs who now generate over $7 billion in annual revenue. And I’ve noticed a pattern: Lots of leaders keep making the same mistakes over and over again.
But solutions exist. I keep a running tally on a whiteboard in my office. The next time you drop an engine, perhaps one of these might help you pick it up and move on.
1. Close doors.
Two entrepreneurs were in my office. Their social media company was taking off, with great clients and 70 employees. But they were stressed. I asked if anything else was contributing. “Well, we still own a radio station.” I grabbed my whiteboard. “You guys need to close doors,” I said.
Philip knight nike Nike cofounder Phil Knight continued to work as an accountant for years after starting Nike. AP
In the early stage of building a dream, a little feet-dragging is understandable. Sara Blakely kept selling fax machines while she sold her first Spanx. But eventually you need to commit.
Bette Graham kept working as a secretary after inventing Liquid Paper, but the company didn’t take off until she quit. Phil Knight did other people’s taxes for years, but Nike didn’t soar until he gave up his accountant job.
When we’re young, we’re often told to keep as many doors open as possible. But for an entrepreneur seeking to go big, the better path forward is to close doors.
2. Fire your mother-in-law.
A few years ago I analyzed my best- and worst-performing entrepreneurs. Three-quarters launched their business with a partner, usually friends or family. Things start off swimmingly. “We practically finish each other’s sentences!” Then, one partner wants to expand while the other doesn’t; or one lacks the skills to scale. Yet they have no way to handle these disputes.
Half the entrepreneurs in the bottom quartile shared one thing: They lacked a shareholder agreement. My advice: Get a startup prenup.
Since, in many companies, it’s a founder’s sibling who’s in charge of sales and an in-law who controls finances, on my whiteboard I’m even more direct: Fire your mother-in-law.
Crazy is Compliment cover “Crazy Is a Compliment” by Linda Rottenberg. Courtesy of Portfolio
From the sons of IKEA’s Ingvar Kamprad to the wives of Rupert Murdoch, families that work together often stop playing together. Gordon Ramsay split with his father-in-law and business partner, Chris Hutcheson, after discovering that he had been funneling money to a mistress and secret family for 30 years. Talk about a kitchen nightmare! It’s okay to love your partner, but make sure you know what to do if the love goes away.
As entrepreneurship has gotten sexier, a few stories have dominated: Apple, Facebook, Twitter. These businesses were based on breakthrough ideas. But that’s not the norm. Most entrepreneurs don’t have a big idea; they have lots of small ones. They don’t innovate; they minnovate.
Many famous products were minnovations. In 1914, Kimberly-Clark executives discovered a creped cotton substitute, which they sold to the Army for gas masks. Stuck with a surplus after the war, Kimberly-Clark marketed it to women as a makeup remover. Customers complained that their kids kept stealing them to blow their noses, so the company repositioned the product as Kleenex.
In 1957, Bill Gore was part of the DuPont team that discovered a new application for teflon. He left to start his own company, W.L. Gore, which adapted that discovery into waterproof clothing, guitar strings, and dental floss.
Innovation captures more headlines; minnovation captures more markets.
4. Drop the pens.
But don’t minnovate to the point of distraction. Researchers in California compared companies that pivoted once or twice with ones that did so many more times. The ones that made only a couple pivots raised two-and-a-half times more money and grew four times as fast.
tim cook steve jobs Apple cofounder Steve Jobs (right) understood the need to prioritize and focus. Flickr/Thetaxhaven
Compare Apple and Sony. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he questioned the number of products. “Which ones do I tell my friends to buy?” He then asked managers, “What are the 10 things we should be doing next?”
After much jockeying, they produced a list. Jobs slashed the bottom seven. Sony, by contrast, has too many brands and too many products.
I was evaluating an entrepreneur who sold eco-friendly packing materials made from tapioca. His business was booming, but he was distractedly excited about disposable pens. One observer told him, “Drop the pens!”
Joyful exuberance can be an entrepreneur’s greatest strength, but it can lead to crippling diversion. Stay focused.
5. Eat the elephant one bite at a time.
We think of entrepreneurship as a big, scary thing, involving terrifying leaps. It’s actually a balance between embracing risk and reducing risk. In air force survival school, they teach recruits to tackle their most difficult challenges through prudent steps. Their slogan: You eat an elephant one bite at a time.
The same applies to entrepreneurs. As Henry Ford put it, “Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.” The next time a piece of your dream comes crashing to the floor, pick it up, go back to work, and chalk it up as your Model T moment.