The Ego and The Entrepreneur

It takes a fat chunk of ego to be a successful entrepreneur. As we say at Social Starts, entrepreneurism is a socially acceptable form of mania. No good entrepreneur thinks he or she is normal. In fact, whenever anyone asks me if they should be an entrepreneur, I tell them they have already answered the question. There is no place for doubt in getting something entirely new started on the face of the Earth.

But ego, while essential to entrepreneurship, isn’t everything. Too much ego can actually be fatal to a startup. This can happen in two ways: one systemic and one teachable.

The systemic ego flaw that can kill a young company is the ego of self-absorption. While confidence is necessary, too much confidence, too total a belief in one’s own ideas, can seal a leader off from outside input. It is a kind of sociopathy. No one else’s views matter, because no other person or entity really matters. Only I, the ego, matter.

An entrepreneur who believes too absolutely will not shift based on what the market thinks, or accept well founded advice from the team or experts. This person will fly the plane directly into the mountainside at high speed, always sure they will never crash, and thus produce maximum carnage. The same strength that caused others to believe in this entrepreneur at the beginning becomes his or her undoing in the end.

Little can be done about this form of ego, once unleashed. At Social Starts, we test heavily for these traits when we evaluate companies so we can avoid the over-egoed founder. We know that once this kind of person has our investment, he or she won’t listen to us any more than anyone else. So, the best cure here is avoidance.

The second kind of ego flaw that can damage young companies is the ego of self-protection. This derives from fear: fear of failure, fear of missing out, fear of unknown consequences. In psychological terms, this is an ego at war with its primitivistic id. This internal battle expresses itself through the entrepreneur either freezing in place, unable to make choices, or running all over the place, trying to be everywhere at once. One reaction generates paralysis and the other exhaustion. Both can ruin a nascent company.

Unlike self-absorption, self-protected ego response can be coached, because this person is open to outside input. Fear doesn’t block listening. The key is to get across to the entrepreneur that, in President Roosevelt’s words, there is nothing to fear but fear itself. I use two lessons with this kind of entrepreneur.

One is about the former Met’s relief pitcher, Tug McGraw (father of the currently popular country crooner), one of baseball’s first “closers.” When he came to the mound in game-critical situations, he’d say to himself: “In millions of years, the Earth will be a frozen ball of ice hurtling through an endless, dark universe. So, how big a deal is it, really, if I give up a hit to this guy?” It calmed him down and let him focus on the task at hand.

The other is an aphorism we at Social Starts believe in deeply. Find a group of people you love. With them, do something you love. If you do that, your chances of success rise greatly. But, if for some reason, the anticipated success doesn’t come, you still spent every day with people you love doing something you love. There is no scenario here that produces a loss. Just different kinds of wins.

What works best for startups, overall, is a blend of belief and humbleness. Don’t worry about swimming the ocean; just take one stroke at a time. Don’t get hung up on the ultimate goal, it is too big and too far away -- just work to do better today than you did yesterday and have the same be true for your team.

A brilliant young friend put it succinctly: An entrepreneur needs ego to start a company and then needs to give up ego in order to win