/* Google Analytics */

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Building a $50m lifestyle business

One of the more irritating habits of the academic view of entrepreneurship is when people disparage anything other than the next Google as a mere “lifestyle business.” In this view, unless the founders are maximizing their desired exit market cap, they’re just tyros doing it for fun.

I had lunch with a friend today talking about his next startup. He’s going to bootstrap and keep it small, both so he can do tasks that he enjoys and also not spend his whole life chasing after external funding.

For the average entrepreneur, a successful IPO is a fluke in good times and nowadays like being struck twice by lightning. Still, my friend’s plan would be disparaged in many classrooms as a “lifestyle” business, because he’s planning something that he wants to do rather than purely utility maximizing.

One argument is that job creation and wealth creation comes only from these IPO-bound high growth companies. So society — whether it be academic researchers, MBA teachers or government bureaucrats — ought to focus on these IPO-bound companies.

But what if my friend grows his new firm to a $50 million/year business? Is that still a lifestyle business? Over three decades, John Beyster built SAIC into a $7 billion/year Fortune 500 company with 42,000 employees before he finally decided to IPO.

Of course, many of the “lifestyle” businesses stay small. But the majority of the venture-funded rockets crash and burn. The chances of creating the next Google are even less than achieving an IPO that allows the VCs to sell their loser to an unsuspecting public.

And is market cap the only measure of venture success? About a year ago, I got to hear fellow MIT alumnus Sal Khan talk about his nonprofit startup, the Khan Academy. Sal is going to change how we think about education — either at the margins, or perhaps the standard K-16 modality for all of North America. Is this just a “lifestyle” business?

Finally, there are the inherent efficiency and effectiveness advantages of the owner-manager business. Investors, banks, the government, even academic theoreticians go to great lengths to solve the inherent principal-agent problem of having one party provide the capital and another manage that capital. As Enron and Worldcom and Government Motors demonstrate, sometimes these controls fail miserably.

If the owners are the managers, then all that effort is no longer necessary, because there are no abuses to prevent. Who has the most incentive to run a business for its long term success? The “lifestyle” business owner. Of course, success may not be as defined by some external economist or finance professor — but does that make it any less successful?

I hope to play a role in my friend’s new business. Perhaps he (or we) will grow it to a $10m/year business, or even a $50m/year one. I feel better about recommending this model of entrepreneurial development to my entrepreneurship students than gambling on VC and a successful exit.

No comments: