Willingness: The underbelly of execution.

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Countless books have been written about entrepreneurship. Some of them are quite good, but most seek to answer the same old questions: What’s it like to be your own boss? What does it take? How will I know if I’m cut out for it? What are the secret things successful entrepreneurs are doing that failed entrepreneurs aren’t?

The subject can be a source of deep fascination for those who aspire to the entrepreneurial life, a sometimes over-inflated source of pride for those who live it, and a source of bitter memories for those who remember an unwise detour away from the safety (ahem) of corporate life.

Notwithstanding the reams of ostensibly great advice available on the business bestseller list, very simply, any would-be oracle of entrepreneurship who prioritizes the art of execution over other factors carries a lot of weight with me. I’ve learned time and again, sometimes in very personal ways, that a plan that will amaze with its brilliance but lags in its execution will create much less value than a simply above-average plan that delivers on-time every time.

We all know at a top level what execution means. It means doing what you planned to, on time. Brad Feld, a well-known web software investor talks about development teams setting release dates, but not just as a goal that can slide, as goals in the software world tend to do. It’s the date, the hour, and the minute that the product will go out the door … or else. Put it on a banner in the office, make everyone get a tattoo, chant it every morning after you brush your teeth. Whatever it takes. Because it’s all about execution.

But what does it mean a level below that? Down at the day-to-day level. Down where first time entrepreneurs fret about when their one customer is going to pay; down where the self-funded garage dwellers live; down where you have to box it up and ship it or no one’s going to box it up and ship it. What does execution mean down there?

I think it means willingness. Are you willing to do everything you never thought of when you wrote the plan? The little stuff that takes forever, like stuffing 1000 envelopes. Are you willing to sit there licking and stuffing until your back aches and your mouth tastes like oven cleaner? Or the big stuff that puts you way out of your league, like pitching a giant customer you don’t quite deserve the opportunity to pitch yet. Are you willing to lose sleep because you’re so nervous, make your spouse listen to your practice presentation over and over again, and polish it to the point that it looks like you actually do deserve the opportunity? Or how about the customer service call that rings right as you’re walking out the door at 6:34pm? Or how about the …. ?

Are you willing?

Willingness is the underbelly of execution. Without it, execution is a strong-sounding but meaningless word. And without execution, entrepreneurship is a great way to lose money (or hurt people, if your venture is humanitarian in nature).

Think about it. Want to be an entrepreneur? Can you execute? Want to execute? Are you willing?



2 responses to “Willingness: The underbelly of execution.

  1. James:

    Just came across your post as I ponder how to frame “willingness to execute” as part of a company’s decision to fund and spin out a new software venture (not their existing core business). They are attracted by the possible available market but have under-considered their own ability to execute (e.g. new skills and capabilities they haven’t needed as part of their existing core). But the dimension I”m most concerned with is Leaderships “willingness to execute.” Hard to frame in a slide, what comes, IMHO, from the gut.


    1. You’re right, Brent. Hard to frame in a slide, but really important. I
      think the first step would be achieving consensus about the most fundamental
      management components of the new venture. Unless it’s really, really
      bleeding edge, it shouldn’t be hard to model a couple relevant success
      stories and get a group of reasonable people to agree on the 3-4 things that
      were absolutely critical to the success stories (e.g. rock star software
      architect, customer development guru, big channel partner, whatever). I’m
      not talking nitty gritty ops–just the fundamentals. I’m thinking
      whiteboard session, not slide deck, of course. Next step is for the company
      to have that gut-level discussion of whether those 3-4 things exist
      in-house. For any that don’t, what will it take to bring them in-house?
      “And who do we know, internally or externally, with a track record of
      running something like this?” By now the whiteboard is getting pretty full,
      and someone needs to turn to everyone else and ask “are we willing to do
      *all that*, in terms of money, time, hr scale, and risk to the core

      For what it’s worth…. (and yes, I once made the mistake of wandering
      beyond the core without an honest assessment of ability and willingness.
      Barely lived to tell about it!)

      Thanks for checking in.

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