Stever Robbins on How to Be A Happy Entrepreneur—One Tip, Never Trust a VC
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you care too much about people.” That’s a typical VC attitude. They are a bunch of people who are there to get rich, and once they are rich, they don’t care anymore.
That’s not the way to build an enduring company. If you care about sticking around and helping people, you have to spend as much time on the culture of your company as on the other stuff. In my experience, in a startup, it’s way too easy to get sucked into caring about the minutiae of the product and not spending nearly as much time on the culture and the systems.
To me, there are three prongs to a startup—systems, people, and money. Most CEOs I have seen don’t balance their time between these. They’re usually way too into building the right system and they ignore the people and the money. Or they’re too into the money and they ignore the systems and the people. What people don’t get is that money is a commodity. Every business ever started has found investment funds. Yet this is where a lot of CEOs spend most of their time.
X: You’re pretty down on venture capitalists. Isn’t there such a thing as a caring VC?
SR: As a VC you can’t be caring. Here’s the thing most entrepreneurs don’t understand. VCs have a fiduciary responsibility to their investors, not to their portfolio companies. You cannot let sentimentality get in the way of that; that is not the agreement you made with your investors. Which means that if you have two investments and one is going to produce a 10x return and the other is going to produce a 20x return, you may liquidate the successful 10x company in order to fund the 20x company. As the 10x CEO, you are going to be really unthrilled about that. But you know what? You should have read the fine print. This is why I recommend that people not take venture capital unless there is an extremely compelling reason—because the incentives of the VCs and the incentives of most companies are fundamentally misaligned.
X: Earlier you said that we confuse progress with happiness. But I see that the little cartoon guy on your business card is holding an iPhone, and I have an iPhone. And I have to say that gadgets like that make me inordinately happy. Is that wrong?
SR: Good heavens, no. However, the way you put it was perfect: gadgets make you happy. Bless you. Let me buy you a few more! But do not say the following: “Gadgets make me more productive.” People buy gadgets because they erroneously believe that they will make them more productive. Not true. Depending on how you use them, they may make you more productive. But they probably won’t.
The reason is that if you do find a gadget that makes you more productive in a particular dimension, then either you or the people around you will ramp up their expectations in that dimension, so that you are still spending the same amount of time, but you are more productive, quote unquote. You are not experiencing any added free time. That’s one of the reasons I don’t believe in any technological solution to productivity.
At the end of the day the problem is not technological, it’s social and economic. And this is an American thing; it’s not universal. We insist as a culture on translating productivity gains into shareholder profits rather than into a higher quality of life for workers. As long as we play that game, none of our productivity-saving devices will help us as individuals.
X: What about tools like David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” method—a brand that you echo in the name of your podcast, the Get It Done Guy. Isn’t that helping people be more productive?
SR: I think it’s helping people clear their minds. I adopted it several years ago and found it to be incredibly helpful. It’s a piece of the happiness puzzle, but it’s far from being the whole puzzle. I interviewed David Allen for my podcast—it hasn’t aired yet—and I think he’s a great guy. He’s very clear that the organizational piece is the means to an end, the end being happiness and a good life. But it’s possible to be very organized and very miserable.
In Western culture, we believe that doing is the point of life. In Eastern cultures, it’s about being. If you believe that doing is the point of life, no amount of David Allen will help you become happy, because there is always more to do. That is the nature of life. You wake up tomorrow and the crops need to be harvested. But if you believe that happiness is in being, then you can get there, because we are always being.
And adopting Getting Things Done is not the way to realize that. Let me go so far as to say that it’s probably easier to be happy by coming to peace with not being able to get things done than it is to attempt to be a Getting Things Done person.
X: Going back to that question of happiness—I’ve seen research suggesting that people who deceive themselves about how successful or talented or liked they are, are actually happier than people who are more realistic about their abilities. What does that say to you?
SR: That relates back to the literature on learned optimism. I am a pessimist by nature who tries very hard to stay optimistic so I will get the benefits of optimism combined with the realism of pessimism. I believe the human race is going to go extinct within my lifetime because of global climate catastrophe. And I’m having a good time between now and then. And if you really think that getting through your e-mail inbox is important, just give that some thought.
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