Sunday, June 16, 2013

Our Fathers, Our Companies : Thoughts on Father's Day and Entrepreneurship

On this father’s day, I have been thinking about my own dad and his influence on my life and career as an entrepreneur.   In fact, the dedication I put onto the new edition of Zen Entrepreneurship, launched just last week, was:  “For my Dad, who brought us from the East, into the West”

My father was an immigrant from Pakistan, who packed up the family and brought us, back in the 1970’s, to the auto capital of the world, Detroit, where he hoped to put his economics background to good use.  From that time, he subtly and not-so-subtly encouraged us to think big, be ambitious, and even steered us towards tech entrepreneurship.

One Saturday in the early 1980’s, in the cold landscape of North Dakota, where we’d moved to because he couldn't find a decent job in Detroit during the recession,  he brought both us into his office. They had just bought an Apple II computer, and he wanted to show us that this would be the “next big thing”.  I still remember the first BASIC program that he taught us to write:

10 Print “Hello”
20 Goto 10

Well, after that I was hooked.  My brother and I competed to see who could build the better Tic Tac Toe games on the Apple II at my Dad's office after school.  Eventually we got our own Commodore 64 to program in.  The graphics were terrible – blocky lines that we used to draw X’s and O’s, but I remember my excitement when I figured out that I could have the computer play against a person (It didn’t occur to me until I saw WarGames with Mathew Broderick that you could have the computer play itself!).

My dad also brought out a copy of Time magazine that had a very young Steve Jobs on the cover with an apple on his head and showed it to us.  This was the only cover of Time that I remember him ever showing us (I just looked up the date – it was February 15, 1982), and the only cover of any magazine other than Mad that I remember from when I was kid.

Though my father wasn’t an entrepreneur himself, he always had an entrepreneurial mindset, and I think this had a lot to do with both my brother and I becoming entrepreneurs.   There was another side to this encouragement, of course - like most Asian parents that immigrated back then --  there were only a few “acceptable” professions for their kids: an engineer, lawyer, doctor, or entrepreneur. 

When I proudly announced that I was thinking of becoming an actor in high school, I remember him reprimanding me with some practical advice - if you want to be an actor, that's fine, but get an engineering degree so you can have a "real job" and make a living.  I listened (it turns out I was much better at computer programming than I was at acting!).  The funny thing is that my tech entrepreneurship eventually led me to be an angel investor in startups, which eventually led me to becoming a producer of independent films,  so it's call come back full circle.  

On this father’s day, I wonder what role encouragement from one’s dad (or mom, but we’ll talk about that on mother’s day!) plays in the (unconscious) decision to become an entrepreneur?

My co-founder in my very first (and most recent) company, Mitch Liu, had grown up with his dad running a small business in Seattle.  I also recall in my book that Mitch’s father had given us the funding so that we could afford to go to our first trade show, which launched our first product.

Years later, when I was at Stanford Business School, Steve Ballmer came to speak to to us.  He told us that Bill Gates had wanted Steve to leave business school to join Microsoft full-time. Steve’s own father wasn’t so sure since the company was just a fledliging startup at the time.  When Steve hesitated, Bill brought out the big guns to convince him that Microsoft was an opportunity that Steve couldn't pass up: Bill’s father.  According to Steve, whenever there was a serious negotiation in those early days and someone needed convincing, Bill would make them have dinner with his father, which would usually do the trick!

One of Bill Gates' neighbors, Naveen Jain, whom I met recently, co founder of Intellius and Moon Express, wrote a nice piece about his children becoming entrepreneurs at a very young age on Forbes:
If their father hadn’t been such a successful entrepreneur and such an influence on them, I wonder if would they have become so entrepreneurial at such an early age?

Scott Walker, himself founder of Walker Law Group, tells us a cautionary taleabout his own father, who had started and took a telecommunications company public, making milions, and then losing them in a great read on this father's day: “3 Lessons for entrepreneurs on Father’s day”:

As I think about it today, while I don’t believe that genetics has anything to do with it, I can say that most of the people that I know who’ve become entrepreneurs had some serious influence come down from their fathers.  So, on this Father’s day, as we appreciate our Dad’s, let’s also think about the influence we are having on the next generation - it could be a key factor in what direction they end up going down in their own path in life.

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