What Makes an Entrepreneur? Four Letters: JFDI

Posted on Nov 19, 2009 | 188 comments


This is part of my Startup Advice series.

nike_logoI had a picture in the office of my first company with the logo above and the capital letters JFDI.  (In case it’s not obvious it’s a play on the Nike slogan, “Just Do It.”)  I believe that being successful as an entrepreneur requires you to get lots of things done.  You are constantly faced with decisions and there is always incomplete information.  This paralyzes most people.  Not you.

Entrepreneurs make fast decisions and move forward knowing that at best 70% of their decisions are going to be right.  They move the ball forward every day.  They are quick to spot their mistakes and correct.  Good entrepreneurs can admit when their course of action was wrong and learn from it.  Good entrepreneurs are wrong often.  If you’re not then you’re not trying hard enough.  Good entrepreneurs have a penchant for doing vs. over-analyzing.  (obviously don’t read this as zero analysis)

I spent nearly a decade building software for large companies and then advising companies on the same.  I didn’t have to make many serious decisions.  So I was surprised at the sheer volumes of decisions that had to be made when I became a startup CEO.  Most of them are completely mundane such as choosing which:  bank,  office space, 1-year lease vs. 2-year lease, logo, URL, pricing structure or which VC.

The technology team disagrees on direction and wants resolutions.  Your head of sales thinks she should fire somebody.  You need to decide whether or not to launch at TechCrunch50.  Somebody asks whether you plan to set up 401k’s and do contribution matching.  I think this paralyzes many people.

air-jordan-logoI learned quickly that I needed to just do things.  Yet I initially had a team full of people that seemed to either over analyze things or more likely wait for a higher source within the company to make the tough decisions for them.  You’re sales person is getting blocked by the CTO who says she shouldn’t go above him but the CTO isn’t approving the deal.  Should she take a chance and potentially ruffle feathers?

Yes, I know it’s my job as the CEO to be the coach for people and that’s fine.  But if everybody is looking for me to make their decisions we’ll never get anything done.  I felt like I had done the hard bit and chosen people that I truly respected and I would rather empower them to make decisions and accept consequences.

Sometimes you need to break some eggs to get things done so if that’s what it takes I wanted my team to go for it and I wanted to symbolize that it was OK with me.  I would far rather have some messes to clean up than to never have them cross the line trying.

So I took on the motto JFDI to symbolize this.  And I think my team did a great job and rose to the occasion.  Maybe it helps that I love controversy and pushing the boundaries so people felt it was OK for them to do it as well.

Another side of JFDI is finding ways to get stuff done that seem impossible.  Entrepreneurs have a way of doing that. Getting suppliers to accept terms that they said they never normally agree, getting accepted to speak on a panel when the conference organizer initially said “no,” getting people to moonlight for you until you have the cash to bring them on board.

A couple of quick stories / examples:

1. Making Things Happen

There’s a guy in Los Angeles that I met at several tech networking events.  He was a really nice and personable guy who had deep domain knowledge in an industry that he’d worked in for 10 years that is in need of technological advancement.  He wanted to be the guy who did it.  So we discussed his ideas several times.  I usually try to avoid getting stuck reviewing people’s PowerPoint decks (I get this request too often and frankly I’m already behind on my own work!) but there are some people you just take an (extra) liking to and want to help.  This was such a guy.

So over several months I went through a few iterations on his idea.  He was stuck on capital raising.  He wanted to know how to get started and “Could I intro him to a couple of local angels?”  One night after a DealMaker Media event we got 20 minutes together after the event ended.  I was blunt (warning: that sometimes happens with me) and told him not to bother and that I wasn’t prepared to help with angels.

“Why?” he asked.  I told him he wasn’t a real entrepreneur.  He looked stunned.  I said that he had been talking about doing this for too long.  He still had no website and no prototypes.  But “he didn’t have the budget to hire a developer until he had raised money!”

I said that was my point. “A real entrepreneur would have done it anyway.  He would have found somebody technical and inspired that individual to work for equity or deferred payment.  Real entrepreneurs are contagious.  They are filled with ideas and they get those ideas onto paper.  That paper can be in the form of wireframes or in the form of a PowerPoint plan.  Or worst case your ideas can be conveyed verbally.  But they GET THINGS DONE.  You have the skills and knowledge to do that.”

I walked away kind of feeling bad.  I don’t like to intentionally crush people’s hopes.  But I always view my job as being honest so that people don’t waste time, money or both if their ideas aren’t good or the positive execution isn’t likely.  But then something awesome happened.  He took my comments as a challenge.  He went out and found a developer and built a product.  He refined his business plan and he got commitments for $150-200k but needed some lead angels to commit first.  When he re-approached me he had a much better plan and he had a prototype!  I introduced him to some angels and his round was OVER SUBSCRIBED!

That is a true story.  I don’t know whether the entrepreneur feels comfortable with my saying who he is so if he does and he reads this perhaps he’ll put his details in the comments section.  But I  bring up this story for a reason.

2. Analysis Paralysis

RodinI used to sit on the board of a company (for which I DID NOT invest) with a very smart and very likable CEO.  This person was educated at the best US schools and had worked for a top-tier strategy consulting firm – one of the big 3.  The CEO led every board meeting with vigor and the board members (sans me) were always wowed.  The CEO had 60-page Powerpoint presentations analyzing every micro detail of the business.  The company had less than $5 million in revenue yet we had a multi-tab spreadsheet doing activity-based costing on our customer service staff, operations and technology.

We had every chart every invented by man (or McKinsey) showing failure rates of our product, mean-times-to-repair, detailed sales forecast charts, etc.  Charts.  What lovely charts!  I know they would have been very useful in dissected the woes of General Motors.  I was the only unimpressed board member.  I was the one pointing out that we were behind on our sales targets and our “Elephant Deal” that had been promised was 6 months late.

After a few board meetings I finally spoke up.  I was a bull in a china shop.  I said (out loud), “I sure wish that some of the time that went into these PowerPoint slides would have gone into meetings with the COO, CFO or CMO of [Elephant Customer].” The CEO had never met with any of them.

With a CEO that likable, smart, educated and accomplished it made board members squirm that I was willing to call bullshit.

I’m sure you know what happens next.  We missed our sales target by more than 66% for the year but we had great slides explaining why.  The next year we set the sales budget equal to the previous year’s sales budget that we had missed.  We missed the next year by more than 33%.  Nobody seemed shocked.  The company has burned through serious cash.  I complained the whole way.  It was not fun.  No “independent” board members seemed to care (or even comprehend the lunacy of the whole situation).

To this day I’m sure they see the situation differently.  Beautiful slides by top-tier consultants have hoodwinked large companies for years and I can see why.  They are intoxicating, complex, insightful and tell a great story.  But in the end they’re usually just that – a story.  Sometimes a fantasy.

I still really like this CEO and have deep respect for this person outside of the role of being a CEO.  The “Peter Principle” says that “everybody rises to their level of incompetency.”  Read this as some people who are great at analyzing to not make great doers and therefore do not make great entrepreneurs.  I think many VCs have learned this the hard way when they step in to temporarily run companies as I have seen happen.

The problem with the company that I described above was that there was somebody willing to fund ongoing losses and the board continued to believe that good times were just around the corner.  Maybe they’ll be proved right some day.  I certainly hope so.  But in the UK we used to call this “promising jam tomorrow.”  I was tired of jam tomorrow.  I left the board.  The company never JFDI.

Image courtesy of Nike

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    GREAT quote. Thanks. I think I'll use it.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Agreed!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, I think people with military backgrounds are more prone to JFDI and often have far better leadership skills.

  • http://jasonkeath.com jakrose

    If luck was a train, you should be living and working on the tracks, not just driving by them everyday.

    Of course it also takes a lot more build up than most people have the patience for. Takes a lot of work to get rolling, build momentum, meet enough of the right people to meet one that get's you to the right crossroads. Gary Vee's new book touches on it when he hears people talk about the fact that he got on Conan 18 months after launching WineLibrary.tv. But, as he points out, it took years of throwing himself out there, testing the web, testing video, learning by doing.

  • jsperli

    Great post. I have been reading your blog now for the last six months, and I am continually inspired and motivated by your entries. Do you think that entrepreneurs with military backgrounds seem to understand the concept of JFDI a bit more than the average start-up CEO?

  • http://twitter.com/mekalav mekalav

    Just gave me some inspiration..otherwise i'm thinking like every person who is aiming to become an entreprenaur but had not taken steps to take your idea to the next stage!!

    Thank you very much,i will take my ideas to the next level definitely!!

    Thanks

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks. People often confuse book smart with good leadership. Leaders are often neither the smartest nor the most talented at individual tasks. But they are the best at motivating, setting direction and ensuring that things get done. People often attribute success to luck. I always loved the saying, “the harder I work, the luckier I get!” ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    GREAT quote. Thanks. I think I'll use it.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Agreed!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, I think people with military backgrounds are more prone to JFDI and often have far better leadership skills.

  • http://jasonkeath.com jakrose

    If luck was a train, you should be living and working on the tracks, not just driving by them everyday.

    Of course it also takes a lot more build up than most people have the patience for. Takes a lot of work to get rolling, build momentum, meet enough of the right people to meet one that get's you to the right crossroads. Gary Vee's new book touches on it when he hears people talk about the fact that he got on Conan 18 months after launching WineLibrary.tv. But, as he points out, it took years of throwing himself out there, testing the web, testing video, learning by doing.

  • http://twitter.com/mekalav mekalav

    Just gave me some inspiration..otherwise i'm thinking like every person who is aiming to become an entreprenaur but had not taken steps to take your idea to the next stage!!

    Thank you very much,i will take my ideas to the next level definitely!!

    Thanks

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  • marilynburgess

    This post was my first introduction to your blog Mark, and I'd like to thank you for writing it. You have helped put me back on track at a time when I am feeling particularly overwhelmed with all that needs to be done in my business. By JFDI, I'm moving forward… and that's the direction in which to go.

    Thanks for the inspiration. I've added you to my rss.

  • marilynburgess

    This post was my first introduction to your blog Mark, and I'd like to thank you for writing it. You have helped put me back on track at a time when I am feeling particularly overwhelmed with all that needs to be done in my business. By JFDI, I'm moving forward… and that's the direction in which to go.

    Thanks for the inspiration. I've added you to my rss.

  • katrina riley

    Love this especially as I am prone to make financially impulsive decisions and my brother is the over analyzer who wouldn't venture into anything without seeing half a dozen charts, so you can imagine we have some great discussions in our house!

  • katrina riley

    Love this especially as I am prone to make financially impulsive decisions and my brother is the over analyzer who wouldn't venture into anything without seeing half a dozen charts, so you can imagine we have some great discussions in our house!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Awesome! Good luck.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks for the feedback, Marilyn. And good luck with your biz.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    It depends on the kind of decisions you're making. If it's investing in the stock market or real estate I prefer to research the hell out of the details. If it's dealing in the ambiguous world of startups where not enough information could even be known, I prefer action.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Awesome! Good luck.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks for the feedback, Marilyn. And good luck with your biz.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    It depends on the kind of decisions you're making. If it's investing in the stock market or real estate I prefer to research the hell out of the details. If it's dealing in the ambiguous world of startups where not enough information could even be known, I prefer action.

  • http://smallfidelitydevices.com/ rahul sharma

    Great post. Very inspiring. Thank you.

  • http://smallfidelitydevices.com/ rahul sharma

    Great post. Very inspiring. Thank you.

  • igalr

    You're bringing a great point if ones venture is in real estate development how do you strike the balance between the due diligence (Analysis) portion vs making a fast decision and moving forward?

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  • igalr

    You're bringing a great point if ones venture is in real estate development how do you strike the balance between the due diligence (Analysis) portion vs making a fast decision and moving forward?

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    In real estate you need to know all of the historical property values plus current values across similar properties so that when you're ready to buy you can do so quickly based on data.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    In real estate you need to know all of the historical property values plus current values across similar properties so that when you're ready to buy you can do so quickly based on data.

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  • http://alorachistiakoff.com/ Alora

    Great article — especially the examples. I work with entrepreneurs all the time on helping them develop new habits, and there is nothing harder than the fact that some people just need more time/information to feel comfortable pulling the trigger than others. It's possible to get more comfortable over time, but it takes work… and a willingness to put up with being uncomfortable on a regular basis until you get there.

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  • http://alorachistiakoff.com/ Alora

    Great article — especially the examples. I work with entrepreneurs all the time on helping them develop new habits, and there is nothing harder than the fact that some people just need more time/information to feel comfortable pulling the trigger than others. It's possible to get more comfortable over time, but it takes work… and a willingness to put up with being uncomfortable on a regular basis until you get there.

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  • Caesarion

    Love this. Thank you for posting it.

  • Caesarion

    Love this. Thank you for posting it.

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  • Katrina

    Entrepreneur dream needs to include being wealthy or famous but it definitely should center on being fulfilled.''The YES Movie''produced by Louis Lautman
    http://www.TheYESmovie.com

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  • Katrina

    Entrepreneur dream needs to include being wealthy or famous but it definitely should center on being fulfilled.''The YES Movie''produced by Louis Lautman
    http://www.TheYESmovie.com

  • http://jeffwidman.com/ Jeff widman

    Brilliant.

    I like the rule “is this decision easily reversible? if yes, why aren't we moving fwd faster?”

  • http://jeffwidman.com/ Jeff widman

    Brilliant.

    I like the rule “is this decision easily reversible? if yes, why aren't we moving fwd faster?”

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  • http://www.elieseidman.com Elie Seidman

    Great comments. In my – albeit limited – experience as an angel, there is an inverse correlation between big impressive decks and success. Since the vast majority of what you need to know to be successful, you can't know before having gotten in the game, the decks are just fantasy anyway and the time that goes into making them look pretty is far better off used to run an additional iterative learning experiment (trying to figure out what actually sticks and what does not). And I worry about companies where there is not only tolerance for but encouragement of big board packages where days or weeks of the management team time is spent preparing for the big board meeting. When the board becomes the most important customer that the management team has, you can be sure that problems lurk ahead. Small companies succeed by moving more quickly and intelligently than big companies and, as my longtime business partner says, living by the motto “today is a great day to stop doing dumb sh*t”. If they have the big company “derisk it all via powerpoint and Excel” approach to business, they've got a big company approach with small company resources – not a recipe for success – average thinking will yield average results. Which leads me to another saying that my co-founder has: “I can't feed my daughter spreadsheets” – this is in response to overly detailed excel models into which tens or hundreds of hours are invested. Invest those hours in impacting the variables in the spreadsheet that drive the whole thing in the first place – your kids will appreciate it when you put food instead of spreadsheets on the table. Real entrepreneurs know that revenue/profits solves all problems – work on those instead of fancy powerpoints for the board and you'll have a board that may want a bit more polish (they tend to be the MBA analyzer type themselves) but will make due with the increasing stock price instead. As you've said so eloquently in another one of your posts, this does NOT mean that not having a spreadsheet is a good idea. It just means that instead of spending the extra 10 (or 100) hours to make it look picture perfect and to polish off every last tab, get out there and get the revenue/profits that turns spreadsheet into food on the table.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, I agree. Never overdo your board Powerpoint slides or make too complicated of Excel spreadsheets. They're both warning signs in startups. Time is better allocated elsewhere.

  • http://www.elieseidman.com Elie Seidman

    Great comments. In my – albeit limited – experience as an angel, there is an inverse correlation between big impressive decks and success. Since the vast majority of what you need to know to be successful, you can't know before having gotten in the game, the decks are just fantasy anyway and the time that goes into making them look pretty is far better off used to run an additional iterative learning experiment (trying to figure out what actually sticks and what does not). And I worry about companies where there is not only tolerance for but encouragement of big board packages where days or weeks of the management team time is spent preparing for the big board meeting. When the board becomes the most important customer that the management team has, you can be sure that problems lurk ahead. Small companies succeed by moving more quickly and intelligently than big companies and, as my longtime business partner says, living by the motto “today is a great day to stop doing dumb sh*t”. If they have the big company “derisk it all via powerpoint and Excel” approach to business, they've got a big company approach with small company resources – not a recipe for success – average thinking will yield average results. Which leads me to another saying that my co-founder has: “I can't feed my daughter spreadsheets” – this is in response to overly detailed excel models into which tens or hundreds of hours are invested. Invest those hours in impacting the variables in the spreadsheet that drive the whole thing in the first place – your kids will appreciate it when you put food instead of spreadsheets on the table. Real entrepreneurs know that revenue/profits solves all problems – work on those instead of fancy powerpoints for the board and you'll have a board that may want a bit more polish (they tend to be the MBA analyzer type themselves) but will make due with the increasing stock price instead. As you've said so eloquently in another one of your posts, this does NOT mean that not having a spreadsheet is a good idea. It just means that instead of spending the extra 10 (or 100) hours to make it look picture perfect and to polish off every last tab, get out there and get the revenue/profits that turns spreadsheet into food on the table.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, I agree. Never overdo your board Powerpoint slides or make too complicated of Excel spreadsheets. They're both warning signs in startups. Time is better allocated elsewhere.