Thursday, May 12, 2011

"Ready Fire Aim" & Fight On

I graduate from USC tomorrow with an MBA and it has me in a reflective mood.

One of the things I enjoyed most about the education was a dichotomy that emerged between my entrepreneur classes (of which I took a lot) and the rest of the classes. 

I’d sit in finance/operations/etc. on one night and focus on academic analysis.  I learned about Jack Welch’s philosophy on leadership, valuation based on DCF, supply chain management and so forth.

Then, I’d sit in an entrepreneur class the next night and focus on real-life execution.  Much of the academic analysis discussed in the other classes flew out the door.  Leadership?  “Build a team of people smarter than you.”  Valuation?  “What’s it worth to you?  That’s its value.”  Business analysis?  “What you think doesn’t matter – go talk to your customers and see what they think.”  I took many lessons out of these classes but they all surrounded a central theme – “stop talking and start doing.”

This dichotomy recently played out in a real-life setting.  I was meeting with a potential strategic partner for TGA Premier Junior Golf who is well-inundated in both the golf and education fields.  He said multiple times:

“How do you know your program is good?  Have you put your curriculum in front of the academic community on a university level for analysis and verification?  If not, you can’t tell me it’s good.  For all you know, you could be turning kids off to golf through a crappy program … it’s just that no one knows it yet because there’s nothing to compare you against.”

My response was: “We know it’s good because we’ve had 100,000 customers, of which approximately 40% are repeat.  We don’t need academic verification when we already have it from our customers.”

The reality is that we’d love to get our curriculum certified on many levels, but TGA wouldn’t exist today if we invested, at any point in the company’s eight year history, the hundreds of thousands of dollars required to do it.  Our philosophy, instead, has always been to bootstrap the business and get after it.  Start.  Get customers.  Test.  Make mistakes.  Learn.  Pivot.  Grow.

One of the best quotes I heard in a USC classroom came from Mark Suster, the well-known LA venture capitalist.  He said: “You have to create barriers that make it harder for people to come in after you, but it rarely comes from technology.  It almost always comes from the PACE of innovation ... the relentless pace that freaks your competitors out.” 
TGA has always been excellent at innovation.  That’s a large reason why, as our colleague pointed out, there is no one to compare us to even though we’ve been proving for eight years that a market exists for school-based youth golf programs.
I recently came up with an off-the-top-of-my-head analogy on this topic that I think would make my entrepreneur professors proud.  I was helping a friend with her business plan for a non-profit called Autism Assistance and I said:

 “You don’t need to create a blueprint for your entire castle right now.  Start by designing a simple and inexpensive dirt road that leads to a front door.  Then get it out into the real world and see if/how people use this road.  And then follow them.  They’ll design your castle for you.  You’ll just need to pay attention and put in the sweat needed to build it.”

“Ready Fire Aim.”  That’s the entrepreneurial spirit.  Academic analysis is good and important, but walking the path of happy entrepreneuring ultimately requires that you: a) get started; and b) Fight On.

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