Inside/Out - Blind Entrepreneurialism Breeds Success

The highly successful chairman of a large IT company finished his sandwich and continued the discussion with his guests. The subject had turned to the early days when he left IBM to form the company. It had started with two partners literally operating out of the back of a car.

"Twenty-five years ago, when we left Big Blue, even though we offered to stay on for a month to wrap up our projects, we were out the same day," he explained. "We had no office, only an idea and a plan." He described how the pair of systems engineers had decided that there was a large market in a particular industry for time-shared services. Sort of an early version of what has, today become known as outsourcing.

Dressed in a golf shirt and slacks, it is hard to imagine Bill, (not his real name), as the head of a worldwide operation with thousands of employees. He answered the obvious question by pointing out that he was now only the chairman. The CEO ran the business, leaving Bill free time to pursue his interests, which include directorships on about a dozen boards, only two of which are corporate -- the rest are volunteer charitable commitments.

Even in casual dress and at a relaxed lunch it is clear why Bill was able to create such a successful business from scratch. A frugal man by his own description, he is a hard charging, focused individual with a direct way of talking that gets his points across in no uncertain terms.

As the discussion about the start-up of his business came to a close he added, "You know, if my partner and I had known then what we did shortly after we were shown the door at IBM, we would never have started this business." That comment brought his three guests up short. "IBM had a piece of software that was the basis for our new venture," he added. "And we were visiting an IBM account where it was installed to develop it as a reference site when the DP manager called us aside and said, 'Don't you know that software doesn't work?'" Of course by now the bridges back to IBM had been burned, and there was little else the fledgling partnership could do but forge ahead.

Today, that early company-killing shocker is only an anecdote. However, it is not unique. Entrepreneurs, no matter what industry they enter, face problem after problem. Successful ones often look back over the path they have made for themselves and see the lucky blind spots that ultimately led to their success.

Bill and his partner thought they had it made with the ready-to-go IBM software. That wasn't the case. Instead, they learned how to make their business succeed without it. The IT world is built on the quiet fortitude and unbridled optimism of thousands of entrepreneurs like Bill. But sometimes the only ones we hear about are the few who use the press to promote themselves and the value of their company's stock.

There are many more like Bill, however. These people start companies, provide income and security to hundreds or thousands of employees and their families, and they go about their business in quiet unassuming ways. For many of them, their wealth then becomes an opportunity to help others by applying their leadership and persuasive skills, not from a speaker's platform or with sound bites for reporters, but in one-on-one interactions with others.

As a local board member of a national youth organization, Bill spent a two-hour lunch with his guests solely to interest them in starting some small programs that might help 10 or 20 high school students learn about different kinds of careers. His guests were duly impressed with Bill's proposition and it's fair to say that this IT entrepreneur closed yet another order.

Entrepreneurs have fortunate blind spots that enable them to see things others don't. And when they succeed like Bill has, they transfer their energy to other activities. Bill is "blind" to the obstacles making it difficult to educate youth about the world of work. And he transfers his enthusiasm and persistence to his lunch guests. Now they are committed, too. Three cheers to the "blind entrepreneurialism" that fuels our industry, and, in Bill's case, his dedication to volunteer service.

--After 18 years in marketing and sales at IBM, Bob Diefenbacher founded Denbrook Systems Associates, an IT consulting firm based in Malvern, Pa.