Missionary founders may turn mercenary; Great missionaries did not risk failing to find a market fit. They risked being eaten

August 21, 2013 4:47 pm

Missionary founders may turn mercenary

By Philip Delves Broughton

Great missionaries did not risk failing to find a market fit. They risked being eaten

The idea of successful entrepreneurs as missionaries rather than mercenaries was conceived, like so many recent business ideas, in the glassy offices of Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, the Silicon Valley venture capital firm. It was first presented to the wider world by Randy Komisar, a Kleiner partner, in his 2000 book,The Monk and The Riddle: The Art of Creating a Life While Making a Living .The book describes a Komisar-like figure advising an over-caffeinated young entrepreneur who has the pitch deck and all the right fundraising language, but a terrible-sounding idea for an online coffin-selling business.

Slow down, says the mentor. Don’t focus on the money. Imagine the whole experience, the satisfaction of doing meaningful work, which is the real definition of success.

The book was a best-seller. But Mr Komisar was merely blazing the trail for John Doerr, Kleiner’s first among equals, adviser to President Barack Obama, and a billionaire from his investments in Sun, Intuit, Google and Amazon, who has since expanded on and evangelised the idea from business schools to magazine interviews.

Mr Doerr’s argument goes like this. Entrepreneurs are engaged in ferociously difficult work. To succeed, their fuel must be passion rather than paranoia. They cannot think of cashing out in a few months or years, but of building their organisation strategically, for long-term success. They must mentor and coach teams, rather than lord it over packs of greedy wolves.They should obsess over making a contribution to society, rather than their own entitlements. Mercenaries lust only after money. Missionaries are interested in money, but lust for making meaning out of their work. They have a “whole life plan” rather than a “deferred life plan”.

Ignore for a moment the fact that the language around entrepreneurship may be becoming excessive: there is a lot of truth to what Mr Doerr says. I was reminded of it by the recent coverage of Jeff Bezos’s acquisition of The Washington Post.

Mr Bezos is a fine example of what Mr Doerr means by missionary. For years, his start-up Amazon was lampooned. It failed to make a profit. It was emblematic of the late-1990s dotcom bubble, as its stock price soared and crashed. A mercenary might have taken the early millions and quit. Mr Bezos stuck with his belief that the internet would revolutionise commerce, and won.

Is missionary the right term for this kind of person, however? My father was a missionary for nearly two decades. He served with a redoubtable group called The Oxford Mission, which brought the tenets of Anglicanism to India and Bangladesh. Its priests and nuns founded orphanages, schools and clinics, which carry on today. But as I try to draw up a list of traits shared by Mr Bezos and the Reverend Delves Broughton (ret’d), I’m done fairly quickly.

I suppose they have both pursued meaning in their lives. But “meaning”, I suspect, means different things to each. My father, who remains defiantly pre-internet in his habits, might struggle to see the spiritual purpose of disintermediating bricks-and-mortar retail. For him, a distribution issue is whether his local library keeps up its subscription to The Church Times.

When I think of a missionary, I don’t just think of someone devoted to a higher purpose and a proper sense of what matters in life. I also think of people of extraordinary modesty, willing to expose themselves to emotional and even physical risk in pursuit of work that may never be generally recognised. A great missionary did not risk just burning through a Series A round or failing to find a market fit. They risked being eaten.

The qualities that Mr Doerr likes to see in an entrepreneur are perhaps more those of a Boy Scout leader – someone who can inspire followers and raise spirits; someone who can, figuratively, put up a tent in the pouring rain and then hike on cheerfully when the sun comes out.

However, when success comes, you do not want them getting all holy on you. You want them to show a mercenary streak and fill their boots. Venture capitalists do not celebrate when the pews are full, but when the collection plate is overflowing, and that does not seem a particularly missionary view of a “whole life plan”.

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 (www.heroinnovator.com), 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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