Some entrepreneurs want to do good. Many more are driven by a chip on the shoulder, a desire for revenge, a distaste for authority.

July 30, 2013, 4:21 p.m. ET

Who Moved My Fortune?

Some entrepreneurs want to do good. Many more are driven by a chip on the shoulder, a desire for revenge, a distaste for authority.


Successful entrepreneurs, in my experience, are tenacious, hardheaded and creative. They persist with their ideas long after others might have given up, and they are good at persuading clients, partners and investors to take a chance. Like successful people in any field, they are driven by a powerful inner need, sometimes positive, like the hunger to do something entirely original, but often less appealing: a large chip on the shoulder, a desire for revenge, a distaste for authority and in many cases flat-out greed. “The Social Network,” David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s 2010 movie about the founding of Facebook, gave a good sense of how all these forces churned inside Mark Zuckerberg: the sense of social insecurity at Harvard; the delight in confronting authority; and the ruthless unwillingness to share equity.Yet too many studies of entrepreneurship are loaded with the sugary highs of entrepreneurial passion, of David-versus-Goliath triumphs, of journeys from deranged idea to billion-dollar enterprise, and skip these gnarly demons. It’s easy to talk about Silicon Valley as a magnet for the smartest and most creative minds in the country. But the valley is also a place of monstrous greed and duplicity. Good capitalists have no problem with this. It’s the price of economic progress.

Try getting a business-school academic to translate this basic business truth into prose. In “Worthless, Impossible, and Stupid: How Contrarian Entrepreneurs Create and Capture Extraordinary Value,” Daniel Isenberg, a professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College and before that at Harvard Business School, offers many useful stories of entrepreneurship, culled from his teaching experience. But it isn’t until two-thirds of the way through that he torturously concedes that every entrepreneur needs a streak of Gordon Gekko.

“I have gradually come to the difficult conclusion that the burning desire for extraordinary value capture is almost a sine qua non for the supreme effort required to convert the value from imagined into tangible value,” he writes. “Personal gain is the simplest and most powerful motivation. If a person does not feel deeply that ‘This must pay off for me,’ there will rarely be extraordinary value creation.” The author adds that his “primary focus on financial gain bothers some people, particularly since ‘social entrepreneurship’ has become a popular term.”


Worthless, Impossible and Stupid

By Daniel Isenberg 
(Harvard Business Review Press, 282 pages, $27)

Mr. Isenberg clearly needs to hang out with a different crowd. The adjectiveentrepreneurial isn’t just another virtuous tag, akin to imaginative or hardworking. It applies to a set of activities, one of which is pursuing and capturing economic value.

Consider Robin Chase, who founded the car-rental service Zipcar in 2000. By the time company went public in 2011, its value soaring quickly north of $1 billion, Ms. Chase owned less than 1% of its stock. Zipcar was acquired by Avis earlier this year for $500 million. For all the success of her company, holding on to so little of its economic value was an entrepreneurial failure. Compare Mr. Zuckerberg, who held on to some 28% of Facebook from inception to IPO, as well as the majority of shareholder voting power, making him one of the richest men in the world at age 29. If after all this entrepreneurial effort he was only worth a few hundred million, we’d view him very differently. Getting rich is part of the entrepreneurial game—no need to be squeamish about it.

Even so, Mr. Isenberg excels at breaking down the many elements that lead to entrepreneurial success. Business writers devote great attention to the startup moment: the race from having an idea to securing the funding to realize it. But that journey, he points out, is just the beginning. Few companies make it across the “valley of death,” the early period when your cash outflows exceed your inflows. Getting from startup to scale is another challenge, requiring new kinds of entrepreneurial and managerial know-how. How you deal with the external challenges, a cratering economy perhaps or a ruinous hurricane, is also relevant. Being a great entrepreneur, after a certain point, is no different from being a solid businessperson and barely merits a separate category.

The three adjectives worthlessimpossible and stupid, Mr. Isenberg says, are often thrown at entrepreneurs as they try to get going. Take SABIS, a for-profit network of international schools that practice so-called traditional teaching methods, with uniforms and rigid lesson plans. It grew out of a school founded in 1886 in a village on the edge of Beirut and, despite Lebanon’s violent history, has kept its headquarters there. SABIS’s CEO Carl Bistany says that “the discipline of profit makes you build better products, and invest in research and development.” An unusual view in K-12 education but certainly not worthless, impossible or stupid.

Or take Sandi Ceško, who created one of the earliest infomercials for Slovenian television in 1992 and has since built his Studio Moderna into one of the largest TV shopping companies in Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Turkey. At first, Mr. Ceško tells the author, “Slovenians viewed the sales guy on TV as a snake-oil salesman, just a notch above criminal.” It took two decades of bootstrapping, high-interest gray-market loans and innovative marketing to earn “the trust of consumers who were as cynical as they come.” Hard work, yes. But framing entrepreneurship as a practice bordering on madness, as Mr. Isenberg does with his title, mystifies it unnecessarily.

Every definition of entrepreneurship raises more questions. “Put smart, educated people in places with few resources where they have no choice but to solve tough problems, and you get lots of surprising value-creating solutions,” writes Mr. Isenberg. But Stanford University students are hardly resource-starved, and they have plenty of access to cutting-edge ideas. So how to explain their success? Ambition, competitive juices and a desire to be richer than the next guy may just have something to do with it.

Mr. Delves Broughton’s latest book is “The Art of the Sale: Learning From the Masters About the Business of Life.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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