Jan 032017

Reboot – The Fountainhead

Reboot – The Fountainhead

Happy New Year!  Every few years or so, especially after a challenging stretch at work, I’ve needed to reboot myself.  This is one of those times, and I will try to write a handful of blog posts on different aspects of that.

The first one is about a great book.  I just read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead for (I think) the 5th time.  It’s far and away my favorite book and has been extremely influential on my life.  I think of it (and any of my favorite books) as an old friend that I can turn to in order to help center myself when needed as an entrepreneur and as a human.  The last time I read it was over 10 years ago, which is too long to go without seeing one of your oldest friends, isn’t it?  While the characters in the book by definition are somewhat extreme, the book’s guiding principles are great.  I’ve always enjoyed this book far more than Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s more popular novel, which I think is too heavy-handed, and her much shorter works, Anthem and We The Living, which are both good but clearly not as evolved in her thinking.

As an entrepreneur, how does The Fountainhead influence me?  Here are a few examples.

  • When I think about The Fountainhead, the first phrase that pops into my head is “the courage of your convictions.”  Well, there’s no such thing as being a successful entrepreneur without having the courage of your convictions.  If entrepreneurs took “no” for an answer the first 25 times they heard it, there would be no Apple, no Facebook, no Google, but there’d also be no Ford, no GE, and no AT&T
  • One great line from the book is that “the essence of man is his creative capacity.”  Our whole culture at Return Path, and one that I’m intensely proud of, is founded on trust and transparency.  We believe that if we trust employees with their time and resources, and they know everything going on in the company, that they will unleash their immense creative capacity on the problems to be solved for the business and for customers
  • Another central point of influence for me from the book is that while learning from others is important, conventional wisdom only gets you far in entrepreneurship.  A poignant moment in the book is when the main character, Howard Roark, responds to a question from another character along the lines of “What do you think of me?”  The response is “I don’t think of you.”  Leading a values-driven life, and running a values-driven existence, where the objective isn’t to pander to the opinion of others but to fill my life (and hopefully the company’s life) with things that make me/us happy and successful is more important to me than simply following conventional wisdom at every turn.  Simply put, we like to do our work, our way, noting that there are many basics where reinventing the wheel is just dumb
  • Related, the book talks about the struggle between first-handers and second-handers.  “First-handers use their own minds.  They do not copy or obey, although they do learn from others.”  All innovators, inventors, and discoverers of new knowledge are first-handers.  Roark’s speech at the Cortland Homes trial is a pivotal moment in the book, when he says, “Throughout the centuries, there were men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision.  The great creators — the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors — stood alone against the men of their time.  Every great new thought was opposed.”  In other words, first-handers, critical thinkers, are responsible for human progress.  Second-handers abdicate the responsibility of independent judgment, allowing the thinking of others to dominate their lives.  They are not thinkers, they are not focused on reality, they cannot and do not build
  • The “virtue of selfishness” is probably the essence of Rand’s philosophy.  And it sounds horrible.  Who likes to be around selfish people?  The definition of selfish is key, though.  It doesn’t inherently mean that one is self-centered or lacks empathy for others.  It just means one stays true to one’s values and purpose and potentially that one’s actions start with oneself.  I’d argue that selfishness on its own has nothing to do with whether someone is a good person or a good friend.  For example, most of us like to receive gifts.  But people give gifts for many different reasons – some people like to give gifts because they like to curry favor with others, other people like to give gifts because it makes them feel good.  That’s inherently selfish.  But it’s not a bad thing at all
  • Finally, I’d say another area where The Fountainhead inspires me as a CEO is in making me want to be closer to the action.  Howard Roark isn’t an ivory tower designer of an architect.  He’s an architect who wants to create structures that suit their purpose, their location, and their materials.  He only achieves that purpose by having as much primary data on all three of those things as possible.  He has skills in many of the basic construction trades that are involved in the realization of his designs – that makes him a better designer.  Similarly, the more time I spend on the front lines of our business and closer to customers, the better job I can do steering the ship

One area where I struggle a little bit to reconcile the brilliance of The Fountainhead with the practice of running a company is around collaboration.  It’s one thing to talk about artistic design being the product of one man’s creativity, and that such creativity can’t come from collaboration or compromise.  It’s another thing to talk about that in the context of work that inherently requires many people working on the same thing at the same time in a generalized way.  Someday, I hope to really understand how to apply this point not to entrepreneurship, but to the collaborative work of a larger organization.  I know firsthand and have also read that many, many entrepreneurs have cited Ayn Rand as a major influence on them over the years, so I’m happy to have other entrepreneurs comment here and let me know how they think about this particular point.

It feels a little shallow to try to apply a brilliant 700 page book to my life’s work in 1,000 words.  But if I have to pick one small point to illustrate the connection at the end, it’s this.  I realize I haven’t blogged much of late, and part of my current reboot is that I want to start back on a steady diet of blogging weekly.  Why?  I get a lot out of writing blog posts, and I do them much more for myself than for those who reads them.  That’s a small example of the virtue of selfishness at work.

Aug 142006

Book Short: Choose Voice!

Book Short:  Choose Voice!

I took a couple days off last week and decided to re-read two old favorites.  One –Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead — my fourth reading — will take me a little longer to process and figure out if there’s a good intersection with the blog.  One would think so with entrepreneurship as the topic, but my head still hurts from all the objectivism.  The second — Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, by Albert O. Hirschman — is today’s topic.

I can’t remember when I first read Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.  It was either in senior year of high school Economics or Government; or in freshman year of college Political Philosophy.  Either way, it was a long time ago, and for some reason, some of the core messages of this quirkly little 125 page political/economic philosophy book have stayed with me over the years.  I remembered the book incorrectly as a book about political systems, and I think it was born consciously in the wake of Eugene McCarthy’s somewhat revolutionary challenge to a sitting President Johnson for the Democratic Party nomination in 1968.  But the book is actually about business; it’s just about businesses and their customers, not corporations as social structures (the latter being more of an interest to me).  Written by an academic economist (I think), the book has its share of gratuitous demonstrative graphs, 2×2 matrices, and SAT words.  But its central premise is a gem for anyone who runs an organization of any size.

The central premise is that there are really two paths by which one can express dissatisfaction with a temporary, curable lapse in an organization:  exit (bailing), or voice (trying to fix what’s wrong from within).  The third key element, Loyalty, is less a path in and of itself but more an agent that “holds exit at bay and activates voice.”

You need to read the book and apply it to your own circumstances to really get into it, but for me, it’s all about breeding loyalty as a means of making voice the path of least resistance, even when exit is a freely available option (few of us run totalitarian states or monopolies, after all).  That to me is the definition of a successful enterprise, both internally and externally.

With your customers:  make your product so irresistible, and make your customer service so deep, that your customers feel an obligation to help you fix what they perceive to be wrong with your product first, rather than simply complain about price or flee to a competitor.

With your employees:  make your company the best possible place you can think of to work so that even in as ridiculously fluid a job market as we live in, your employees will come to their manager, their department head, the head of HR, or you as leader to tell you when they’re unhappy instead of just leaving, or worse, sulking.

With your company (you as employee):  make yourself indispensible to the organization and do such a great job that if things go wrong with your performance or with your role, your manager’s loyalty to you leads him or her to give you open feedback and coach you to success rather than unceremoniously show you the door.

Ok, this wasn’t such a short book short — probably the longest I’ve ever written in this blog, and certainly the highest ratio of short:actual book.  But if you’re up for a serious academic framework (quasi-business but not exclusively) to apply to your management techniques, this short 1970 book is as valid today as when it was written.  Thanks to David Ramert (I am pretty sure I read it in high school) for introducing it to me way back when!