Drugbaron Blog

May 17, 2012 no comments

Aiming for Average: Three traits where being best means being bang in the middle

Winning entrepreneurs tend not be average.  On traits as diverse as energy levels, intelligence and gut feeling the best entrepreneurs are usually off the graph.  Whether in sport, culture or business being average just doesn’t cut it.

Extremes often bring with them big benefits – but sometimes also big handicaps.  And working with some of the best, and most successful, brains in biotech over the last decade has highlighted to DrugBaron three particularly important character traits where extremes are definitely not associated with success.

So here, for the benefit of aspiring entrepreneurs in almost any field (and probably almost everyone else as well), are the traits where you should aspire to be average.

1. Broadcasting versus Listening

Two very important skills – but can you do both at the same time?  Or at least be able to switch between the two when the situation demands it?

Most entrepreneurs are very good at broadcasting.  DrugBaron’s favorite definition of an entrepreneur is someone who makes things happen despite not controlling the resources necessary to achieve them.   And to make things happen with other people’s resources, you need to be a master in the art of persuasion.

Persuasion has several components: a strong rational argument, powerfully made, coupled with charisma, charm and persistence.  You wont get far unless you can get your point across.  Numerous business books have been written on the art of the ‘elevator pitch’ – getting your point across in the 30 seconds you might share in a lift with an investor or a collaborator.

But the flip side is just as important.  No-one operates in a vacuum, and the opinions of other people do matter – even if they are wrong!  You can’t, and definitely shouldn’t, listen to everyone: consensus is the enemy of focus and momentum.  Yet knowing who to listen to, and when to listen, is as important as having the right pitch.

If you are a Twitter user, ask yourself whether you do it to tell the world about your ideas or to hear what they have to say

Faced with a venture capital investor telling you why he cannot invest in your plan, you have to distinguish from multiple options: was your pitch flawed, or did it just not match his sweetspot?  Should you take on board the criticism and change your plan, or go present exactly the same pitch to the next investor?  You wont get that decision right every time, but listening carefully will improve your odds of getting funded.

And listening means more than just letting the other person have their say.  It involves absorbing and analyzing their contribution – whether you subsequently reject it or incorporate it into your world-view.  Listening also involves more than your ears.   Sometimes the most important messages come from the non-verbal cues, or by reading-between-the-lines.  Learning to add value from those around you, letting their views add value to your proposition without succumbing to confusion and doubt, is probably a harder – and rarer – skill in today’s “broadcast-heavy” world than honing your pitch.


2.  Helicopter View versus Attention-to-Detail

Are you a technocrat or a visionary?  Some people find it easy to see the big picture laid out in front of them, but find the minutiae of implementation tiresome.  Others are great at implementing someone else’s vision.  But to be a successful entrepreneur you really need to master both: you need to be the visionary technocrat.

“Surely I don’t need to be both?  Isnt that what teams are for?” pleads the budding entrepreneur.  “I have a great vision, so why cant I leave all the details of implementation to someone else – someone who is good at that kind of thing?”

Because vision and detail matter in equal measure.  And you cannot be master of both if you abdicate responsibility for one or the other.  How often is a grand plan de-railed by a subtle detail?  Margaret Thatcher’s grand design of a Conservative Britain, prosperous and fair, lay in tatters thanks to the details of Poll Tax implementation.   It wasn’t that raising local taxes on the basis of people rather property values was inherently a bad idea – but the unforeseen reaction to the detailed presentation killed not only the Poll Tax but the entire vision.

Equally, complete mastery of the details rarely makes a difference if you can’t raise your head sufficiently far out of the trough to see the direction in which you are headed.  Rather like the creators of the atom bomb, technical mastery can deliver uncalled-for consequences if there isn’t a well-thought-through plan guiding the endeavor.

To be a successful entrepreneur you need to the “visionary technocrat”

Put simply, you have to be the visionary leader –it’s a rare skill, and without it your career as an entrepreneur is likely to be stillborn.  But on top of that you have to have a sufficient grasp of the details that you can understand the issues your team is facing with implementation, and spot the fatal flaw that arises from a mismatch between implementation and vision.   You have to value attention to detail.  Too many “big thinkers” wave a dismissive hand and consider every problem to be a minor annoyance capable of solution – because, quite simply, most are.  But the successful entrepreneur knows enough of the details to spot the one that’s a genuine killer – before its too late.


3.  Optimism versus Pessimism

The last of the three is the biggest contradiction of all – the hardest split personality to master.  How to be both the most passionate believer in your technology but also its biggest critic.

You know the drill: you have to believe that the product you are developing is the best of its kind, a genuine world-beater, in order to sustain the life-sapping energy levels that are required to drive the project forward over years or even decades.  The biggest difference between being a biotech entrepreneur and in any other field is the vast tract of time that lies between idea and product – a decade at least, and often double that.  Sustaining belief in a product for such a period, through the inevitable downs that often outnumber the ups requires a superhuman dose of self-believe and good old-fashioned optimism.

If you let doubt creep in, you – and most likely the project – are sunk.  If you expel all possibility for doubt, though, the consequences may be nearly as bad.

But such unswerving optimism and dedication has its downside.  Will you recognize the moment when it’s right to let go?  Can you really distinguish yet another problem you can solve from the moment when it’s finally clear this is never going to work?

There is a very real danger that your entire career could be wasted in the ceaseless pursuit of a product that is forever outside of your grasp.  And the only antidote is to be the biggest critic of your project.  You have to be able to ask whether the project deserves your complete dedication, determination and optimism.  And you have to be able to ask that question without bias in either direction.  Neither must you gloss over the blemishes as a result of your passion and unbridled optimism, nor must you succumb to doubt as a result of the sheer magnitude of the task ahead.

It is a narrow path to tread.

Of course, with all three of these traits it is not really the middle ground that you seek (being neither optimistic nor pessimistic but in the torpor of neutrality).  Instead you seek something far more elusive: being extreme in both directions at the same time.  Passionate optimism continually validated by an incisive critique.


Achieving the perfect balance for all three of these critical parameters is not easy.  DrugBaron has met hundreds of very capable people whose ability to succeed at the very highest level is only tempered by an extreme disposition in one or other of these character traits.

Individuals who hit the bullseye (being bang in the middle for all three traits) are much harder to track down – but the place to look for them is in the rarified strata at the very top of the pond.  Kevin Johnson, one of the most successful biotech entrepreneurs as the man behind Humira™, recently becoming the biggest selling drug in the world, and now a partner at Index Ventures, is one such individual – and being ‘average’ (on these traits at least) has not served him too badly.

Whether in sport, culture or business being average just doesn’t cut it.  But extremes can sometimes bring handicaps rather than benefits.

Of course, ‘average’ in this context does not mean ‘like the majority of people’.  For these traits, hitting a healthy average is far harder than occupying one extreme or the other.  So if you cannot bring yourself to aspire to the average, call it ‘balanced’.   But whatever you call it, stop for a moment and assess yourself – and see whether you can move yourself closer to the bullseye.

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