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Entrepreneurship: Tragedy or Comedy?

At the Lally School’s annual celebration to recognize the William F. Glaser ’53 Entrepreneur of the Year, the event included a talk by the honoree.  Paul Bleicher ’76, CEO of OptumLabs, was this year’s recipient.  He heads an innovative company looking to promote collaboration across the health care industry in data, analytics, and research to encourage the emergence of solutions that are not possible when these entities remain separate.

I am tempted to say that Paul’s story typified previous honorees in that, like them, he turned an idea into a thriving business.  But that would trivialize the extraordinary nature of his accomplishments because they were by no means ‘typical’ of entrepreneurial endeavor.  We honor particular entrepreneurs exactly because they have driven their companies to unusual levels of success despite the long odds against them.

We may not know the exact percentage of new business launches that fail, but we know it is large.  Those of us who study the entrepreneurial process are staunch admirers of successful founders because we see the many hurdles they must overcome to achieve sustainable success.  Just a handful of hurdles include honing the idea for the business, finding initial financing, locating suitable space, enlisting others in the cause, either as supporters, co-founders, or employees, conveying their vision, developing the product or service, prototyping, targeting an initial market and attracting potential customers, securing the right equipment, selling, scaling from trial runs and pilot testing to full production or delivery, identifying sources of longer-term financing, and negotiating, negotiating, and more negotiating to take each of these steps effectively when any one of them could kill the business.

The business press dramatizes some of the more spectacular collapses, which carry echoes of Greek tragedy.  Like a Greek tragedy, despite different industries, actors, locations, and situational challenges, the tragic pattern repeats: a business catches on, roars ahead with rapid growth, and the glories of triumph roll in.  But the founders have a blind spot that inevitably leads to their demise.  Just like the Greeks, the protagonists’ fatal flaw comes back to haunt them, and the business flames out.

I doubt if many entrepreneurs think of themselves as latter-day incarnations of Oedipus or Achilles, but the theme of their story is as old as literature.  Their flaw usually comes from a lack of self-awareness.  All the more remarkable then was one part of Paul’s story.  Having successfully started a previous company, Phase Forward, he was confronted with the fact that his lack of experience running a technology-based company made him and his company vulnerable to forces they could not foresee.  Aware of his own limitations, he acceded to hire a CEO who possessed the experience he lacked. 

This situation is classic for entrepreneurs emerging from the initial stages of success and seeking to establish their companies on firmer long-term footing.  Many cannot let go.  It is their baby, they nursed it to bouncy youthful life, and they want to nurture its continuing growth.  They cannot see or refuse to admit that the skills that got them this far are different from those they will need to take the next steps.  They cannot accept that skillfully coaching the little league team does not mean they are ready for the big leagues.  In this instance, sorry to say, Paul, instead of a tragedy, your story took on the form of a fairy tale, “and they all lived happily ever after.”

Dr. Thomas Begley is dean of the Lally School of Management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.