Now that it’s been about 1-1/2 years since I started calling myself an entrepreneur, lots of things have changed — I see the world differently now than I had then, largely due in part to the things I’ve learned about myself during the whole process. It’s definitely not for everyone, but if I had to pick one reason why people should learn something about entrepreneurship (or improv, if we’re talking about music) it would be the clarity and vision that it brings to your sense of self.
I do have a confession to make, though. Despite having become part of the startup community now, I’ve come to appreciate the value of large bureaucratic systems more and more as time goes on. I hear a lot of stories by entrepreneurs joining startups for these reasons, but I never minded working in a cubicle, filling out forms, going to long meetings, writing long documents that are way too long for its own good (I’m very good at this if you couldn’t tell already), having a boss, adhering/establishing standards, or working with “red tape” (ok, I mind it…just a little, though). I’m largely in agreement with Steve Blank’s post about how the federal government can play a positive role in promoting innovation to society in an overall sense.
Bureaucracies have advantages that many people tend not to think about, or often take for granted, such as: 1) its ability to spread the burden of responsibility across a wider network of people, 2) its structures are closer to the ideal of a democratic society (things are voted on, for example), 2.1) it can keep environments civil in cases of disputes, 2.1a) allows for the execution of larger projects with longer time scales, 2.1b) standardized, unified systems can help raise the bar from the bottom up, helping those most in need. For me, I see these processes as a big, ever-evolving puzzle that needs to be solved, except that the pieces are people’s interests, while the edges are the mechanisms for making them happen. It can actually be a lot of fun, especially if you believe in the mission of the institution that you’re working for. The word “bureaucrat” has a negative connotation in the U.S. and many Westernized countries, but in some cultures it’s seen as a badge of honor, since its implication is that that you’re involved with something big, and for the greater good.
So it’s kind of a wonder then, why I’ve become knee deep in startup culture despite these core beliefs not having really changed all that much. In my previous places of employment I was fortunate enough to have had some experiences working on some projects that could be said to be “cutting-edge”…well, it’s more accurate to say that most of the time it was me just trying to make my otherwise mundane workday more interesting by experimenting with alternative ways of getting things done. Occasionally the institution I was working for would notice that I was doing these things, giving me access to some of the cooler projects that were going on at the time. So in a lot of ways I was trying to innovate just as a entrepreneur would, except within an environment with more structure.
There’s already a word for this type of profession: the intrapreneur. These are the people working in the research and development sectors of governments, non-profits, universities and corporations. They’re the heads of various departments trying to find, fund, and execute projects that they think would add value to the institution as a whole. Running counter to the “rags-to-riches” myth, many of the entrepreneurs I’ve met have come from these backgrounds, looking to apply their skills and experiences into the process of starting a new business from scratch. They’ve gotten a taste of what its like to work within innovative environments, and the idea of doing it on their own often peaks their curiosity as they exit the womb and venture into the unknown.
These people are the exceptions rather than the rule (they wouldn’t be entrepreneurs, otherwise), and their paths can go in many different directions. Some of them found their own companies using their own ideas, others join existing startups, while a few come to realize that they’re more comfortable with where they came from, eventually going back to working for more established institutions. In some rare cases some will find out that they hate their profession as a whole and they end up finding something else. But in all cases the journey seems well spent, because at the end of the day they have a better idea who they are, what they’re about, and where they need to be in order to make the most effective use of their time and talents. Life is too short, after all.
What I particularly liked about Lean Startup was that its ideas could be applied to innovators of all types and backgrounds, working in various different types of environments. Being an academic and theorist at heart, I tend to need a model in order to guide my decision-making processes, even if it’s just an excuse to try something new. And the Lean philosophy was just what I needed at the time in order to do the things that I thought needed to be done. The term “Lean Startup” itself can be said to be kind of misnomer anyway, since you can trace its lineage to Toyota’s “lean manufacturing” model, which was first used in very structured environments of the corporate world. “Lean” is more of a framework that people use in order to understand and address the problems that they encounter in day to day practice — rather than a methodology in itself, it’s more of a way of life and a way about going doing things.
At its core, the “Lean” approach focuses on a few key tenants: 1) the elimination of waste, 2) a return to simplicity, and 3) the discovery/creation of “real value”. In today’s world where budgets are tight, processes are complex, and authenticity has become somewhat of a rarity, it can be a very effective way of addressing the needs of society in a very broad, all-encompassing kind of way. A big part of Lean Startup’s success can be credited to the fact that its ideas have this type of universality to it that goes beyond the scope of starting a new business in itself, functioning as a counter-cultural movement in response to the happenings of recent trends and developments.
The intrapreneur is sort of in an awkward position of not being able to claim allegiance to either poles of the narrative, since they’re neither the “underdog” nor quite representing the values of existing incumbents, since they’re often doing something way different than the institution that they supposedly represent. But it’s within this weird middle-ground where interesting things can happen, because it forces innovators to think about issues in a more nuanced and complex light. When institutions give people the freedom to tweak and adjust their bureaucratic systems, it can often lead to some very effective results — it’s not so much that people need to learn how to “break” the rules (especially since everything has been done already to some degree) but if they can learn to bend the rules far enough, change can happen even within the heart of large organizational models.
My experiences starting my own business and meeting with entrepreneurs have definitely contributed a lot to the way I go about doing things now. I’m now more aware of the challenges, pitfalls, and opportunies that come with running a startup — or any type of project, for that matter — and I’ve applied these lessons into my own works with some amount of success. I also have a much better idea of how the world works as a whole, because I now see the differences between small businesses and large corporations as more of a progression from one to the other, rather than a dichotomy between the two.
Oddly enough, it’s been affecting the music that I’ve been making as of the late as well. The music I make is in itself a cross between the very formalized methodologies of classical music, the innovations of the avant-garde, and the pure chaos of free improvisation, landing somewhere in the middle of the three things. When I compose music, I try to start with a small idea and have it grow organically over time, just as any founder would want to happen for their own idea and venture. My interest in musicology is just an added bonus, because it gives me the ability to document and justify what I’ve been doing in the written language as well.
I’ve noticed that a lot of startup people who’re also fans of classical music seem to enjoy Beethoven quite a bit — it might have to do something with the fact that he was also an entrepreneur of sorts, taking advantage of the technological change that the printing press brought to the society of his time. This comes across in the music as well — the 3-note theme in the fifth symphony starts with a simple idea but grows into something larger and self-perpetuating as time goes on. His life and philosophy is reflected his in the music that he makes, and people come to appreciate it if they can see themselves existing within his story somehow. Similar to how startup companies move from one stage to another, after his success and popularity began to grow, Beethoven’s career hit its all-time high when he “scaled” his projects toward larger ensemble — what we now know as his 9 symphonies.
Even as I meet more and more people in the startup community, I’m finding that there’s actually a need for people like myself — people who can traverse between the chaos of entrepreneurship and the highly structured environments of institutional bureaucracies. Corporations need innovators in their own ranks in order to stay relevant to current trends, while all startups strive to grow into something larger, eventually creating a need for systems that start to resemble bureaucratic systems. And the idea of having a hand in creating or managing these structures is something that I find genuinely exciting.
I know I’m probably unusual for thinking this way, but I also know that I’m not alone. Hermes Conrad from Futurama is a bureaucrat, but he loves his job and strongly believes in what he does as a profession. (And yes, people like him do exist.) Intrapreneurs are the “weird middle” of the startup world who balance the need for innovation, structure, growth, and form. And if you look closely, you’ll probably noticed that they’re practically everywhere, hidden behind the noise of the polarized narratives of mainstream culture.