Even if you have no interest in tennis, Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open, is a compelling and engaging read. His drive reminds me of that of the very best entrepreneurs: those who move the wall.
This week I met with a friend and entrepreneur who asked me two questions. Did I think that venture capitalists would think his idea a good one and fund it? Second, based on my experience as an entrepreneur, should he keep going?
Whether venture capitalists thought his idea was a good one or not was somewhat irrelevant, I told him. Many of the best ideas are contrarian ones. And smart investors have passed over many of the best ideas.
To the question of whether he should keep pursuing his entrepreneurial endeavor I answered that there was only one person who could answer that question: him.
But I did tell him, from first-hand experience, that to be an entrepreneur, one has to believe. Because for the entrepreneur the wall is the enemy. And one has to believe one can charge at the wall and the wall will move.
What is the wall?
It is all the negatives, the “no’s” that every entrepreneur is faced with on the road to success: no money; competition – especially game changing competition that suddenly pulls the rug out from under your feet; lack of loyalty, lack of direction, lack of customers or users.
But most critically, the wall is self-doubt.
Self-doubt, as Agassi shows in Open, is the ultimate enemy. Entrepreneurship, much like tennis, is a game of decision after decision, and if you let that get to you, you will tense up. Agassi refers to this as pressing. Pressing, he says, “is the tennis term for not letting things flow. Pressing is one of the deadliest things you can do in tennis.”
Entrepreneurs in the groove make decision after decision, seemingly almost without thought. Granted, there is much that goes into those decisions – namely the decisions that have come before them and the hard work to gather data, create great product, recruit great people, know the customer, and, at its core, to have a dream to begin with.
Yet everyone suffers from pressing at one time or another, reverting from operating at light speed, from making decision after decision, from going for it, to being paralyzed. Often, investment capital itself paralyzes the entrepreneur – the perceived pressure of needing to make the perfect decision every time.
The sage Brad, Agassi’s coach, once tells Agassi, “Your confidence is shot and perfectionism is the reason. You try to hit a winner on every ball when just being steady, consistent, meat and potatoes, would be enough to win ninety percent of the time.” That’s great advice for tennis champion and entrepreneur alike.
One night Agassi tells his good friend J.P. that he feels a remarkable confidence in his game, “a new purpose for being on the court.” “So how come I still feel all this fear? Doesn’t the fear ever go away?” he asks his friend. It’s a question I’ve heard over and over from entrepreneurs, in many different ways. Replies J.P., “I hope not. Fear is your fire.”
Ultimately, Open is so much more than a book about tennis. It’s a book about overcoming self-doubt, about finding the perfect balance between caring and not caring that enables the highest levels of performance, about turning fear from a crippling disease into a driving force.
I know what some of you are thinking: that sounds like a page out of a business school interpersonal dynamics text book. But anyone who’s ever faced the wall knows it to be true.
The real insight in Agassi’s book, however, is team. Agassi surrounds himself with a core group of people who coach him, inspire him, give him objective and honest feedback, push him, and fill in his weak spots. People with whom he can be brutally honest and who are – in a supportive way – brutally honest in return. That is perhaps Agassi’s most brilliant stroke.
One of Agassi’s best friends tells him, “Some people are thermometers, some are thermostats. You’re a thermostat. You don’t register the temperature in the room, you change it.” Of course, his friend happens to be telling Agassi this as inspiration for wooing Steffi Graf.
It’s great advice for life and for business. Change the temperature in the room and you will deliver great product, raise money, and recruit great people. Change the temperature and the wall will move.
Having not bought a new wireless router since my old Linksys WRT54G v5 in 2006, my hat is off to Cisco for their new Valet Plus wireless router I installed this weekend.
Here’s what I love about it:
- Easy setup. No CD’s, no downloads. I inserted the included USB key into my computer’s USB port. The Cisco program launched, connected to the Valet, and in just a few minutes I was up and running. It really works as easily as advertised.
- Easy device setup. My wireless printer was easy to re-configure: I pressed the WiFi Protected Setup button on the printer and the one on the Valet. Voila – printing. Now that’s the way computers are supposed to work!
- Speed. I live in a metropolitan building where everyone has their own wireless router. A few weeks ago my WRT54G, despite upgraded firmware and my 100Mbps dedicated Internet access from Webpass, stopped delivering a reliable Internet connection. There is just too much wireless in the building. While I still don’t get the kind of speed I do with a wired connection, movies have never downloaded faster and browsing the Internet is nearly instantaneous.
Thank you Cisco. There is nothing more simply compelling than understanding the customer’s needs and delivering on your promise to fulfill them.
Michael Lewis’ new book, The Big Short, is easily my favorite read in months. If you have any interest in financial markets, want to understand what really happened in the financial meltdown, or just want a thriller of a non-fiction story, this is it.
Lewis, as always, is a terrifically engaging writer, and has been for over 20 years, since he wrote Liar’s Poker. Terry Gross had this story on NPR’s Fresh Air and Steven Pearlstein published a review in the Washington Post.
But there’s no substitute for reading the book first-hand. Lewis tells the story through the eyes of some of the players. Between that and my own fascination with financial markets, and especially inefficiencies in them, this was a page turner.
Some of the best insights from the book come from reading about the principals at Cornwall Capital Management and Dr. Michael Burry at Scion Capital:
1) Find asymmetric return upside. It comes in many forms such as timing, market or company.
2) Connect the obvious dots by analyzing the data.
3) Have the conviction to take advantage of the opportunity.
In particular, Cornwall Capital focused on options that made a linear assumption about a non-linear event. That is, an event that would move a price way up or way down. And with the resulting ability to make “a small bet with long odds that might pay off in a big way.”
When I say obvious, I mean, the data for many of their investments was right there in front of them – it was all in the open, obvious. The data on the CDS’s was fully available, in the open. But one had to connect the dots.
Then, one had, as the old saying goes, to put one’s money where one’s mouth is, and stay with it. While the “experts” told them they were crazy, those who bet against the CDS’s made a mint. Their strategies were vindicated when the market crashed.
Lewis obviously put in the time necessary to understand the financial instruments fully. Then he went back and made that topic accessible and engaging to the reader.
These two abilities: to simplify the complex and to make the mundane engaging are rare talents found both in Lewis and the best businesspeople.
There’s another reason I loved the book: it told the story of some incredible entrepreneurs. These were people who bet against the common wisdom, used their analysis of available data to their advantage, and stuck with their convictions even when the world told them they were crazy.
Of course, they were betting on a Sure Thing. But that’s for another blog post.
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