In 2011, my now-partner Chris Moody (and then-CEO of Gnip, which I was on the board of) kicked my butt about my endless statements about hating marketing. His thoughts on recasting “marketing” as “thought leadership” appeared on this blog in a post I Don’t Hate Marketing.
It remains a great example of one of the reasons I blog, which is to think out loud, get feedback, learn, and iterate. From that point forward, I changed my entire perspective on “marketing” and now focus almost all of my ideas around “marketing” on thought leadership.
Recently, we’ve seen leaders of several high profile startups implode, along with the current and possibly future expectations around their business. The one everyone was talking about last week is WeWork. Mike Isaac’s book, Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, which I read a few weeks ago when it came out, is another contribution to this mix. And, there are a number of others, including many who are trying to keep out of the limelight all of a sudden.
A few days ago, I was pondering the idea of a “cult of personality” around a company or an institution and trying to come up with a way to describe when a cult of personality was dominating what was going on within and around a business. In many cases, a cult of personality can propel a company to extremely high profile or valuations, but it can also very quickly cause things to go completely off the rails.
If you ready my writing, you know that I like to use the word “obsessed” instead of “passionate”, and I much prefer working with people who are obsessed with what they are doing, rather than just passionate about it. I think passion is easy to fake, especially around entrepreneurship, and biases strongly toward extroverts. Obsession is almost impossible to fake, and while it can be unhealthy in the extreme, it is a powerful filter for me when talking to entrepreneurs.
While I was meditating yesterday, my mind was particularly noisy. I don’t know why, nor do I judge myself around it, but as I was watching (and labeling) the thoughts bouncing around, simulating a pinball machine in my mind, one popped out and lingered.
Entrepreneurs who create a cult of personality are obsessed about me, me, me.
I remembered the thought again this morning which prompted this post. I now have a simple way to separate between cult of personality and thought leadership.
- CP: Obsessed about me, me, me
- TL: Obsessed about the product, mission, idea
When the entrepreneur or CEO becomes the center of the narrative – or more specifically makes themself the center of the narrative – that’s a big red flag from my perspective.
As the endless stream of emails, tweets, and news comes at me, I find myself going deeper on some things while trying to shed others. I’ve been noticing an increasing amount of what I consider to be noise in the system – lots of drama that has nothing to do with innovation, creating great companies, or doing things that matter. I expect this noise will increase for a while as it always does whenever enthusiasm for startups and entrepreneurship increases. When that happens, I’ve learned that I need to go even deeper into the things I care about.
My best way of categorizing this is to pay attention to what I’m currently obsessed about and use that to guide my thinking and exploration. This weekend, as I was finally catching up after the last two weeks, I found myself easily saying no to a wide variety of things that – while potentially interesting – didn’t appeal to me at all. I took a break, grabbed a piece of paper, and scribbled down a list of things I was obsessed about. I didn’t think – I just wrote. Here’s the list.
- Startup communities
- Human instrumentation
- 3d printing
- User generated content
- Integration between things that make them better
- Total disruption of norms
If you are a regular reader of this blog, I expect none of these are a surprise to you. When I reflect on the investments I’m most involved in, including Oblong, Fitbit, MakerBot, Cheezburger, Orbotix, MobileDay, Occipital, BigDoor, Yesware, Gnip, and a new investment that should close today, they all fit somewhere on the list. And when I think of TechStars, it touches on the first (startup communities) and the last (total disruption of norms).
I expect I’ll go much deeper on these over the balance of 2012. There are many other companies in the Foundry Group portfolio that fit along these lines, especially when I think about the last two. Ultimately, I’m fascinated about stuff that “glues things today” while “destroying the status quo.”
What are you obsessed about? And are you spending all of your time on it?