What Does It Take?

With three kids, one wife (thank God!), four companies, two cats and a love of Blues, it’s hard to find time to settle down and crack a book! I admire my voracious wife for reading at a clip that may get her to 100 books in 2018 but have modest hopes of getting through 1/10th of that volume.

But two books I’ve picked up recently have really caught my interest. The first was Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance. Intrigued by how Musk’s story might compare to that of other mega-unicorn entrepreneurs, I picked up The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone.

These guys have a similar backstory — a childhood with a broken family, repaired with a second marriage. Unexceptional middle-class upbringing. Recognition as exceptional children. Burning ambition and a desire to do something special, something world-changing. There are personal qualities (intelligence, focus, vision, intensity) that are both fired and impeded by their childhood experiences.

Both also found success relatively early in their careers with a venture that then gave them the financial freedom to pursue a larger dream. Musk invented Zip2, a company that created city directories in the early stages of the Internet. Bezos earned a substantial salary working on Wall Street. Each invested substantial personal wealth in incubating his vision.

Both are also seen as very tough bosses with a rough and often biting style of criticism when their extremely high expectations are not met. Each has created a culture of sacrificing personal life to the professional — and has led by example. (Bezos seems unusual among the high-end entrepreneur set, still being married to his first wife.) They motivate extraordinary effort and results out of their key employees, but at the cost of a trail of broken relationships and bitter stories from employees unable or unwilling to participate in the culture.

The companies each have created are also competitively ruthless, taking out targets with a mix of severe financial pressure, talent poaching and a mean streak.

See a theme here?

There are other examples — think of the reputation of Steve Jobs, or Jack Welch, or Steve Ballmer. It’s easy to come up with a long list of intense, focused and just plain brutally tough business leaders. But are there counter-examples? Who are the “nice guys” who’ve built billion-dollar businesses?

Anyone? Anyone….?