Jun 11 2021

Why Philosophy and Entrepreneurship?

Since releasing my newest book The Entrepreneur’s Weekly Nietzsche: A Book for Disruptors I’ve been continually getting the questions “Why Philosophy and Entrepreneurship?” and “Why Nietzsche?”

Dave and I cover this right off the bat in the book, so I thought I’d toss up an excerpt that addresses the question with part of my own origin story with Dave. It follows.

Nietzsche? For entrepreneurs?

It was the end of January 1988, about nine months since we had embarked on turning Brad’s solo consulting shop, Feld Technologies, into a real business. We were fraternity brothers and close friends and opened our first office directly across the street from our fraternity chapter house in Cambridge. We planned to use smart yet inexpensive software developers to build business application software. We employed half a dozen programmers, most of whom were undergraduates from our fraternity working part-time. We didn’t have any financing except for Brad’s credit card and the $10 with which we had purchased our common stock.

Dave walked into Brad’s office after calculating preliminary financial results for January. Up to this point, we had mostly broken even, but the news was grim: we had lost $10,000 in one month. We had not seen it coming, and it took some effort for us to untangle what had gone wrong. Dave had been spending most of his time managing the part-time developers, who were primarily working on future products, instead of billing hours to clients. Brad had been selling computer equipment, which had low gross profit margins, instead of billing hours to clients. Much of our revenue for the month had come from one highly productive though erratic undergraduate developer, Mike, who was working on a billable client project.

Before we had a chance to figure out what to do, Mike quit, citing a need to focus on his studies. Now we had no choice: we fired everyone, shut down our month-to-month office, sold all the office furnishings, and moved the business to our apartments in downtown Boston. It was gut-wrenching. Brad wondered whether we had failed just as we got started. Dave worried about paying rent. We had long discussions about the future of the business, including whether or not to continue.

But we did have billable projects. We no longer had to spend our time managing people and had figured out where our bread was buttered. Results were good enough in February to calm our nerves and even better in March. Just as important, we had learned some crucial lessons and settled on a very different idea about how we would move forward with the business. The experience of hitting bottom and the lessons we learned became deeply ingrained in our brains and our company culture as we more methodically and progressively built the firm.

Fast-forward thirty years, when we were in the midst of writing this book, and Dave was reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra. He encountered a passage that said the highest mountains rise from the sea, and that fact is “inscribed…on the walls of their summits.” Because of our experience at Feld Technologies—and many times since—we knew immediately that this had to be a chapter in the book. We imagined the solace and instruction it might have offered us to have seen (and understood) this quote, to have read a short essay like the one in our chapter Hitting Bottom, where the starkness and promise of the situation are presented in black and white, or to have heard Walter Knapp’s story of the crash and rebirth of Sovrn, a genuinely disruptive company.

That is how we wrote most of the chapters and how this project began. In reading Nietzsche, we noticed ideas that reminded us of situations, questions, and concerns that frequently arose in our entrepreneurial and venture investment experience. Nietzsche had a way with words, and we found that some ideas were nicely encapsulated and phrased. We started playing with expanding upon his pithy aphorisms and gathering stories from entrepreneurs, and it clicked.

Feld Technologies never became a disruptive company, despite our ambitions. It plateaued at around $2 million in revenue before we sold it in 1993. Because we had built a solid foundation for a certain kind of success, we never again hit a deep low point, and consequently never again had the painful opportunity to rethink our premises. This point, too, is covered in Hitting Bottom and illustrates why we did not just skip Nietzsche, write some essays, and assemble some entrepreneur stories. Nietzsche—sitting or walking alone, in pain, almost blind—thought deeply and managed to share these thoughts with the world. We tried to follow his lead, thinking hard and pondering additional angles and situations to which the quote might apply. We want you to do the same, as you keep in mind that Nietzsche’s works have been highly influential throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.

In business and entrepreneurship literature, inspiration is sometimes more helpful than instruction. Though there is plenty of how-to information in this book, we aim to give you food for thought from a different perspective. We address issues of leadership, motivation, morals, creativity, culture, strategy, conflict, and knowledge. We push you to think about what you and your enterprise are made of. We expect you to question and ponder these ideas, not just put them into action. If we are successful, you will sometimes get angry and at other times feel pride. At times you will wonder what you really know, and at other times you will charge forward. We hope that the combination of Nietzsche’s colorful language, our elaborations, and some stories from entrepreneurs will offer you intellectual, emotional, and entrepreneurial inspiration.

Nietzsche was not a fan of commercial activity or businesspeople. He saw the former as crass and the latter as lacking nobility. However, we suspect that if Nietzsche were alive today, he would view entrepreneurs differently. He adored intensity and fervor, deeply valued those who create things, and wrote at length about “free spirits” who do not feel bound to tradition or cultural norms. Nietzsche viewed his mission as the “revaluation of all values,” and he intended to disrupt the entire moral tradition of Europe in the late 19th century.