How To Climb A Mountain And Other Essential Lessons For Entrepreneurs
This article is a finalist in the inaugural "Prize For Intrigue" competition - a story sharing competition for students from London Business School's Entrepreneurship Summer School programme.
In a compelling and brutally honest portrayal, Kit Latham (ESS 2015) reflects on the long and often rocky road he has travelled to understand what it takes to become a successful entrepreneur.
My business idea is ill-conceived, to put it politely. I know that now. Thanks to London Business School’s Entrepreneurship Summer School, I am now less capable and less motivated to start my entrepreneurial career as the CEO of a DNA-driven anti-ageing skincare company. And I am grateful.
Perhaps ironically, this is not the first time that learning about entrepreneurship has tempered my desire to scratch the proverbial start-up itch. My Masters in Technology Entrepreneurship earned at U.C.L. had the same effect. Steve Blank’s Lean Launchpad course nearly convinced me to stop trying to achieve a “self-made” status altogether, and instead resign myself to a corporate desk job working for the man. If I keep learning about entrepreneurship at the rate I am currently going, I will soon no longer be able to tie my own shoelaces without consulting “The New Business Road Test.” And yet, for reasons beyond my own understanding, I keep trying.
At London Business School’s Entrepreneurship Summer School (ESS), we are told to be prepared for the worst. Failure is highly probable and a lot could go wrong before we reap any sense of reward. There may be no demand for our product or service, the market could crash before we secure funding, our business partners could screw us over – the possibilities for ineptitude are endless.
Each new lesson, whilst illuminating, takes away the unearned assuredness in which new ideas flourish. When the scale of the challenge becomes clear, the path is much more daunting. When you can see the size of the mountain to climb, and the peril therein, each step is taken much more cautiously. Progress slows. This sounds disheartening, but it is what entrepreneurship education should strive to achieve.
"When the scale of the challenge becomes clear, the path is much more daunting."
For me, entrepreneurship is painful to learn because a big part of the process is about recognizing that I don’t know everything, even when it is my own business idea. I don’t even know what I don’t know. But at the very least, I now know that I don’t know what I don’t know (do you follow?). I have moved from unconscious incompetence, which is a painless and confidence-boosting place to be, to acute awareness. A much more uncomfortable state of affairs. After all, realizing you were only looking at the tip of the iceberg when you thought it was the whole damn glacier is a formidably intimidating discovery.
A sad side effect of awareness is loss of confidence. But perhaps this is the price to be paid for enlightenment. Overconfidence can be dangerous – and the statistics in favour of failure are overwhelming. The stories out of Silicon Valley and other start-up cities are written by the winners. The CEOs of failed businesses rarely make the front page of WIRED. And yet, at the same time, confidence is essential to any new venture. Thus, entrepreneurs are faced with a catch-22: Know too little, and you are bound to fail. Know too much, and you are scared to try.
"After all, realizing you were only looking at the tip of the iceberg when you thought it was the whole damn glacier is a formidably intimidating discovery."
A common refrain echoed by struggling entrepreneurs the world over sounds like this: “If I had known how hard it was going to be, I never would have done it.” Because the truth is, starting a business is hard. Conceptualizing, prototyping, executing – none of it is easy, nothing is straightforward. Entrepreneurs are constantly second-guessing themselves, trying to discern which activity is the highest priority, which will add the most value to the business, which will capture the most profit. Wannabe entrepreneurs (myself included) get indoctrinated into the idealism of being our own bosses for the very reason that we don’t see this side of the fence until we have already crossed the threshold.
So what is the way forward? This is what an education in entrepreneurship must teach. Having an understanding and an awareness of the risks involved is a significant part of the equation; but it is only one part. The rest is what you do to mitigate those risks. The ESS and London Business School taught me how to test assumptions, how to fail quickly and cheaply, how to iterate often. Yes, a course like this could put some students off of ever wanting to start their own companies. But ask any failed entrepreneur, and they will tell you that is a lesson best learned early.
"Having an understanding and an awareness of the risks involved is a significant part of the equation; but it is only one part. The rest is what you do to mitigate those risks."
As for me, while I might be a little less confident, I am no less deterred. My idea has gone through several iterations. My confidence in it swings wildly. And though my steps have grown smaller, they have become more secure. I am committed but cautious. Persistent but prudent. Because now I can see the size of the mountain, and despite its magnitude, I have learned how to climb it: with a healthy respect for the challenge.
The LER would like to thank and acknowledge Katie Wadsworth (MBA 2016) and Nick Burton (MBA 2017) for making this article possible and the Deloitte Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship for sponsoring the 2015 Entrepreneurship Summer School "Prize For Intrigue".