I’m not always comfortable with entrepreneurial attitude. It can be narcissistic and out of touch with reality. But, if you want to disrupt an industry, you need to bring some moxie to the party. Most important, experience has taught me it is one of the key predictors of a startup’s success.
This came into focus recently in discussions about the entrepreneurial culture of different regions of the world. Giving a presentation to an Icelandic-Boston conference, I talked about the similarities between the Nordic countries and Israel: high science intensity, small populations, and geographic isolation which creates a global orientation. But, I said, there is a difference: Nordic people don’t display the characteristic Israeli “attitude”.
By Israeli attitude I meant that, in my experience, Israelis in a business context are often quite demanding, blunt to an extent some might consider rude, aggressive and ambitious to an extent some might find alarming, and very tough negotiators.
Dan Senor digs deep into Israeli business culture in his book about Israel’s entrepreneurial success: Start-Up Nation. He points out that you also find a high degree of informality, team cohesiveness and collectivism (doing things for the good of the group) among Israeli entrepreneurs, and some people might find that surprising in light of their tendency to individual aggressiveness. However, the crucible of Israel’s formation and continued struggles, much like the crucible of a start-up, forged a culture that is both less structured and more cohesive than more secure countries.
After my talk the leader of the Icelandic delegation came up to me and told me, quite bluntly, that I was wrong: Icelanders have much the same attitude as Israelis. In common with Israelis, they face big external challenges: living on an island in the far-north Atlantic, literally a thousand miles from anywhere, with very limited resources. Despite this they have bounced back from financial disaster in 2008 and Iceland now ranks 13th globally in GDP per capita, ahead of most of Europe. That is why, she argues, Icelanders make such great entrepreneurs.
This topic came up again in a discussion with a leading European investor in venture funds around the world. He sees the special characteristics of Israeli culture that foster both attitude and entrepreneurship, but he asked, if that is so important, then how do you explain the success of California? It faces few existential threats, apart from the occasional drought and earthquake.
In her classic book about the rise of Silicon Valley, AnnaLee Saxenian points out that Silicon Valley started out as an under-dog in tech industries that were dominated by big east coast firms: GE, IBM, Raytheon, etc. The under-dog status fostered cooperation, ecosystem building by local leaders, and pugnacious attitude. Today Silicon Valley is the big dog. It’s dense entrepreneurial eco-system has a culture of its own based on legends, role models, and a proven way of doing business. Part of that culture is a hyper-ambitious, confident, impatient attitude.
You can see this in Boston, too, in the dynamic between MIT and Harvard. Harvard, founded in 1636, is the proud old establishment. MIT, which came along 225 years later and focused on prosaic engineering matters, had to prove itself. Outstanding success fostering start-ups is one of the ways it has done that. There are legends, role models, and proven ways of doing business in the MIT community much like Silicon Valley. The culture of entrepreneurship is “in the walls”, as my MIT-grad partner likes to say. And, there’s attitude, centered on a belief that MIT turns out the world’s best technology innovators. Harvard has had to come MIT’s way recently, creating an engineering school, although they keep it mostly buried (literally underground) behind the Law School. New York City, which has shown strong growth in tech entrepreneurship, has always had entrepreneurial attitude.
The most important question is: what works in practice? All of our most successful founders and early CEOs display a good deal of entrepreneurial attitude. With attitude as with many other aspects of entrepreneurship, if you’re totally in the comfort zone, you’re probably not in the success zone.
This article was written by Todd Hixon from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.