Entrepreneur

Do dysfunctional families breed entrepreneurs?

(Editor’s note: Serial entrepreneur Steve Blank is the author of Four Steps to the Epiphany. This column originally appeared on his blog.)

I was having lunch with a friend who is a retired venture capitalist and we drifted into a discussion of the startups she funded. We agreed that all her founding CEOs seemed to have the same set of personality traits – tenacious, passionate, relentless, resilient, agile, and comfortable operating in chaos. I said, “well for me you’d have to add coming from a dysfunctional family.”

Her response was surprising, “Steve, almost all my CEO’s came from very tough childhoods.  It was one of the characteristics I specifically looked for. It’s why all of you operated so well in the unpredictable environment that all startups face.”

I couldn’t figure out if I was more perturbed about how casual the comment was or how insightful it was.  What makes an individual a great startup founder (versus an employee) has been something I had been thinking about since I retired. My comfort in operating in chaos was something I first recognized when I was working in the Midwest.

Out of the Air Force, my first job out of school was in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the mid-1970’s installing broadband process control systems in automotive and manufacturing plants throughout the Midwest. I got to travel and see almost every type of Rust Belt factory – at the time, the heart and muscle of American manufacturing – GM, American Motors, Ford, U.S. Steel, Whirlpool.

Our equipment was installed in the manufacturing lines of these companies, and if it went down sometimes it brought the entire manufacturing line down.

Repairing our equipment could be time critical. One day, I was at the Ford Wixom auto assembly plant training my replacement and I was at met at the door by an irate plant manager.  He welcomed us by screaming, “Do you know how much it costs every minute this line is down.”

As I’m troubleshooting our equipment scattered across the plant, the manager followed us still yelling.  My understudy looked at me and said, “How can you deal with this chaos and still focus?”  And until that moment I had never thought about it before.  I realized that what others heard as chaos, I just shut out.

A day in the life of a founder
For those of you who’ve never started a company, let me assure you that it never happens like the pleasant articles you read in business magazines or in case studies.  Founding a company is a sheer act of will and tenacity in the face of immense skepticism from everyone – investors, customers, friends, etc.  You literally have to take your vision of the opportunity and against all rational odds assemble financing and a team to help you execute.  And that’s just to get started.

Next, you have to deal with the daily crisis of product development and acquiring early customers.  And here’s where life gets really interesting, as the reality of product development and customer input collide, the facts change so rapidly that the original well-thought-out business plan becomes irrelevant.

If you can’t manage chaos and uncertainty, if you can’t bias yourself for action and if you wait around for someone else to tell you what to do, then your investors and competitors will make your decisions for you and you will run out of money and your company will die.

Great founders live for these moments.

Creating the entrepreneurial personality
Fast forward three decades back to today.  The lunch conversation was an interesting data point to add to a hypothesis I’ve had.

I’ve wondered, just as a thought experiment, how would we go about creating individuals who operate serenely in chaos, and have the skills we associate with one type of entrepreneurial founder/leader?

One possible path might be to raise children in an environment where parents are struggling in their own lives and they create an environment where fighting, abusive or drug/alcohol related behavior is the norm.

In this household, nothing would be the same from day to day, the parents would constantly bombard their kids with dogmatic parenting (harsh and inflexible discipline) and they would control them by withholding love, praise and attention. Finally we could make sure no child is allowed to express the “wrong” emotion. Children in these families would grow up thinking that this behavior is normal.

(If this seems unimaginably cruel to you, congratulations, you had a great set of parents.  On the other hand, if the description is making you uncomfortable remembering some of how you were raised – welcome to a fairly wide club.)

Over the last five years I’ve asked over 500 of my students how many of them grew up in a dysfunctional family (participation was voluntary.) I’ve been surprised at the data. In this admittedly very unscientific survey I’ve found that between a quarter and half of the students I consider “hard-core” entrepreneurs/founders (working passionately to found a company,) self-identified as coming from a less than benign upbringing.

Founders as Survivors
My hypothesis is that most children are emotionally damaged by this upbringing.  But a small percentage, whose brain chemistry and wiring is set for resilience, come out of this with a compulsive, relentless and tenacious drive to succeed.  They have learned to function in a permanent state of chaos.  And they have channeled all this into whatever activity they could find outside of their home – sports, business, or …entrepreneurship.

Therefore, I’ll posit one possible path for a startup founder – the dysfunctional family theory.

One last thought. The dysfunctional family theory may explain why founders who excel in the chaotic early phases of a company throw organizational hand grenades into their own companies after they find a repeatable and scaleable business model and need to switch gears into execution.

The problem, I believe, is that repeatability represents the extreme discomfort zone of this class of entrepreneur. And I have seen entrepreneurs emotionally or organizationally try to create chaos — it’s too calm around here — and actually self-destruct.

Lets be clear, in no way am I suggesting that growing up in a dysfunctional family is the only path to becoming a founder of a startup.  Nor am I suggesting that everyone who does so turns out well. And in particular I’m not suggesting that every employee who joins a startup fits this profile, it just seems more prevalent in the founder(s).

And this hypothesis might be a good example of confusing cause and effect. Yet I am surprised given how much is written about the attributes of a startup founder, how little has been written about what “makes” a founder.


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  1. Quora says:

    What are the best-kept secrets of successful business people?…

    I can’t argue with the benefits of having a supportive upbringing. However, some observe a high percentage of entrepreneurs grew up in dysfunctional families, hypothesizing a tumultuous upbringing teaches entrepreneurs how to operate (read: survive) i…

  2. Quora says:

    What are the best-kept secrets of successful business people?…

    To add a nature vs. nurture perspective – Some observe a high percentage of entrepreneurs grew up in “dysfunctional” environments – they hypothesize a tumultuous upbringing teaches entrepreneurs how to operate (read: survive) amid chaos and unpredict…