Venture Voice – interviews with entrepreneurs

Entertaining Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurial Terror

Share the word

When I read Steve Hindy’s excellent book Beer School in preparation for my interview with him about how he started the Brooklyn Brewery, one small section jumped out at me. Steve remembered his experience reading an editorial in 1987 by Wilson Harrell, the then publisher of Inc. magazine, titled “Entrepreneurial Terror.” Though Steve and I discussed this on the show, I think this topic deserves more exploration.

Here’s an excerpt of Steve’s summary in his book of Wilson’s article:

[Wilson Harrell] recounted his World War II experience as a combat fighter pilot shot down behind enemy lines in France. He was rescued by members of the French Resistance, who gave him refuge on a family farm. Periodically, the Germans would search the farm, looking for resistance fighters. Discovery of any role in the Resistance meant certain death. When his French hosts got word that the Germans were coming, they buried him on his back in a shallow grave in a field on their farm. A piece of straw sticking up through the earth was his only source of air to breath. He lay quietly underground while jackbooted German soldiers tromped around the fields, thrusting their bayonets into the ground to detect any buried partisans. Harrell said this experience was very similar to the life-and-death thrill of starting your own business.

Harrell wrote in a later column that entrepreneurial terror was not a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but rather the perpetual lot of the entrepreneur. Harrell told of his first business representing Kraft Foods in selling their products to military bases in Europe and the Middle East. One day, the president of Kraft told Harrell that the company was thinking of taking over the sales operation in Germany with its own people. Harrell boldly replied that if he was losing Germany, he would give up the rest of his brokerage business.

He said it took Kraft a month to make up its mind. “During every moment of those 30 days and 30 nights, I lived with a terror as vivid and as horrifying as anything I had experienced in combat,” wrote Harrell. Finally, Kraft backed down and awarded him a new contract.

“That experience anointed me ‘Entrepreneur’ and inducted me into ‘The Club of Terror,’” he wrote. “The experience taught me another entrepreneurial secret: The elation you feel after a terrorizing episode is payment in full for the suffering. That ‘high’ is an emotion especially reserved for those of us who start companies. It is food for our spirit-the sustenance that keeps us going from one encounter to the next.”

This is the part of starting a business we all like to gloss over. But it brings up a powerful point: Overcoming terrifying odds is part of what makes someone an entrepreneur. People who work for others love to describe themselves as entrepreneurial simply because they have initiative and come up with ideas frequently. This usage of entrepreneurial seems to cheapen the term. Is membership into “The Club of Terror” required?

Steve himself is no stranger to terror. He’s flirted with bankruptcy, been robbed at gun point and been threatened by the mob. Steve isn’t the only Venture Voice alumni to join this club. Fabrice Grinda had to empty his bank account and miss payroll to keep Zingy afloat. John Bogle said “It was awful, I cried.” on our show in reference to the outcome of his prior venture before starting The Vanguard Group. Almost every entrepreneur goes through tough times. It’s part of building a business.

So what’s the good news? Admission to “The Club of Terror” is open and membership is free. By examining the bad times in addition to the good, we’re at least prepared for the inevitable turmoil that will visit any entrepreneur.

There’s a certain comfort in knowing terror isn’t just the feeling you have but that it’s part of the job description.

List of Episodes