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Greater than money

Dave Brodwin's post on the Emerging Enterprise Center blog today made me think about one way to pick out businesses that will thrive for the long term.

Entrepreneurs are usually in business for something greater than money.  I'm not taking the financial gain out of the equation.  I think that's a critical component.  All entrepreneurs take risks and make sacrifices.  It's hard to justify that without the financial reward.  But, rarely is the money the only thing.  Most entrepreneurs have some sort of vision -- seeing their technology adopted by the masses, creating a new market segment, enabling a new business model that changes how a market works, changing people's perception about how a certain business works, or even 'just' building a growing business that can employ a lot of people in good jobs with good compensation.  I put the 'just' in quotes because I don't want to minimize the importance of doing that alone.

It's that mission for something greater than money that really drives entrepreneurs.  Maybe having fun is a critical part of that mission, as Dave suggests.  But, I think that having fun is a byproduct of being on a mission for something greater than money.  Most entrepreneurs want to have an impact and know that their own personal reputation is on the line.

One CEO I know has started a company in a big market that is really a small community.  The technical people in this community are very tight and have a conference every year with just a few hundred attendees.  Reputation in this community matters alot, as it does in most technical forums.  Despite having a very well positioned and growing business on their hands, this CEO has much more at risk reputationally.  If the technology fails or the business goes bust, they'll lose a lot of the reputation that they have built up over 20+ years.  As an investor, this makes me think that this CEO is going to focus on building a sustainable business and not just a quick hit.

Contrast this with the financial products group at AIG.  They are under fire for taking big bonuses despite having their division sink the company.  Without the $170B government bailout which bought us 80% of the company, AIG would be bankrupt and these guys would have received nothing.  And yet, they have no shame about taking their bonuses for 2008.  They must be worried about their reputations because the company won't release their names.  If they were doing something to be proud of, they wouldn't hesitate to get their names out there.

For someone doing it right, look at Paul Levy from Beth Israel.  He appealed to employees to forego salary increases, their 401K match and other benefits to save 450 jobs that would have otherwise been cut.  Paul set the example and got the employees to follow.  They believed that saving the jobs was the best way to achieve their mission of delivering great health care.  They voted against their own pocketbooks in order to achieve something greater than money.  I think I'd be happy to be treated at Beth Israel, but I certainly don't want to buy my insurance from AIG.

Maybe if we all use criteria beyond just money when we make our decisions and buy our products, we'll reinforce the right behaviors and punish those that are just purely greedy.


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