When I hear stories about entrepreneurs as kids, they always seems to involve kids going door-to-door selling stuff. They have some kind of arbitrage play where they buy low, sell high and make a little bit of money (or sometimes quite a bit) doing it. That was never me. I hate door-to-door sales, I hated the fundraisers that made me go door-to-door. I would always sell just enough to get the lowest tier, 5 cent prize so that I could at least get something. I have no compulsive need to sell stuff and I never will.
What I did have was a compulsive need to build stuff. Cool stuff. Complicated stuff that required me to learn theory and apply it to practice. My first love was music and so my parents put me in guitar lessons. I was living in Hawai’i at the time so I ended up learning Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar. I got good enough to play most of the songs on Revere (see CD cover below), and also played the baritone in the school band and picked up piano on the side. Music is awesome.
When I moved away, I dropped guitar but managed to learn enough from a friend to do improv piano. It started with some theory and some drills, and through hours and hours of practice I began to get good enough to make up melodies on the fly…you could call it JIT music composition. I loved it, the technical creativity was invigorating and relaxing all at once. I soon developed a compulsive need to play the piano, and do piano drills, and get better. It satisfied my need to build complicated, cool stuff.
College was fantastic, but there was a notable shortage of pianos. My creative itches were going crazy without an outlet and fortunately my computer science major scratched it unexpectedly well. I didn’t realize it at the time, but for me writing code is more about creativity than playing with tech. Fred Brooks explains it surprisingly well:
The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. He builds his castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination. Few media of creation are so flexible, so easy to polish and rework, so readily capable of realizing grand conceptual structures….
Yet the program construct, unlike the poet’s words, is real in the sense that it moves and works, producing visible outputs separate from the construct itself. […] The magic of myth and legend has come true in our time. One types the correct incantation on a keyboard, and a display screen comes to life, showing things that never were nor could be.
Over time I have learned that I have a compulsive need to build things (video games, robots, electronics kits, and companies). However unlike the salesperson who is expected to go start a company or “do business”, my compulsion leads people to expect me to shutup, work for the man, and sit in a cubicle (or worse an open floor plan) with no natural light. That’s just not me.
I’ve been told that Larry Ellison likes to say, “If you don’t build it and you don’t sell it, I don’t know what you do for me.” If the two parts of a software company are build and sell, why is the compulsive seller viewed as “the entrepreneur” and the compulsive builder viewed as “the engineer” destined to work for the man (Silicon Valley has been doing a good job at changing this perception)? I believe the answer may be risk tolerance. Sales commissions immediately weed out anyone without risk tolerance the same way college weeds out those that aren’t technically minded enough to code. The result is that while there are still engineers with high risk tolerance, they are diluted by those who have never been culled by that requirement (this also applies to social skills, business sense, style, athleticism, and a ton of other things).
If you are an engineer that has tolerance to risk, maybe you are a Builder Entrepreneur. Go find a salesperson with some business sense and become the next Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, or the next Steve Jobs and Woz. Become the next Eric, Sergey, and Larry. Innovation requires risk, and our economy needs more jobs. Best of all, there are already plenty of aspiring sales entrepreneurs that need you.