A few months ago, I was talking to Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder of Chobani, who had attended an entrepreneurship event earlier this year. He joked that the most entrepreneurial guy at the event was the person setting up the audio-visual equipment, as he was running a business and getting stuff done. Most of the other people there were attracted to the idea of entrepreneurship, but less the ins and outs of actually gutting it out and building a business.
Hamdi would know -- he bought a defunct yogurt factory in rural upstate New York and worked for months developing yogurt recipes. Eventually he came up with something he was happy with, and in the next 10 years, the company grew into a billion-dollar operation with hundreds of employees. Hamdi got the original money to buy the plant from an Small Business Administration loan -- proof that sometimes the government is there to give private industry its start.
Hamdi started something decidedly unsexy, and it led someplace profound.
What is Unsexy Entrepreneurship? It’s the unglamorous, obscure, brick-and-mortar business with an unclear ceiling. It’s a company you start not with a desire to be huge, but because there’s a problem you’re driven to solve. You work with normal people, like the folks in upstate New York. If you create jobs, they tend to get filled by other normal people.
How do you know if you’re Sexy or Unsexy? Here’s a Key:
Sexy: Based in San Francisco or New York because that’s where the money is.
Unsexy: Based in Detroit, Baltimore, St. Louis, New Orleans, Providence, Cincinnati, upstate New York or wherever you happen to live.
Sexy: Raise tens of millions of dollars. Stalk venture capitalists on Twitter.
Unsexy: Get money from early customers, your savings, credit cards, maybe take out a loan. Bootstrap.
Sexy: Hobnob with name-brand entrepreneurs and investors at a top-tier accelerator
Unsexy: Spend time alone and with customers.
Sexy: High technology, winner-takes-all, scales way up
Unsexy: Block and tackle, brick-by-brick, one customer at a time.
Sexy: Get covered in Techcrunch and other blogs.
Unsexy: Your customers don’t read blogs.
Sexy: Your business addresses a billion-dollar market opportunity.
Unsexy: It’s not clear how big the opportunity is, but you’re solving a problem that your customers seem to care about.
Unsexy: Animals that exist.
Sexy: Hire software developers and compete for high-end talent
Unsexy: Hire people who will stick with you even though no one knows who you are.
Sexy: Hit the next big benchmark for the next funding round in 18 months.
Unsexy: Grow organically over five to 10+ years.
Sexy: Get acquired or acqui-hired, get more investment, resist going public
Unsexy: Keep reinvesting in the business. Over time build something meaningful.
Sexy: People want to work with you to get rich.
Unsexy: People want to work with you because you treat them well.
Sexy: On to the next thing.
Unsexy: Stick with it. Recognize that things take time.
Sexy: Ignore the folks in the community around you, they’re pointless distractions (unless they’re important and can help the business).
Unsexy: Try to help the community, you live there too.
Sexy: Talk about how hard you work.
Unsexy: Talk about your family.
Sexy: Change the world.
Unsexy: Change the neighborhood.
Sexy: Hard-charging, outwork the competition, sleep under your desk. Culture of efficiency and strength.
Unsexy: Go home to your dog, girlfriend / boyfriend, family. Call your Mom. Culture that acknowledges struggle.
I love and admire Sexy Entrepreneurs -- who doesn’t? But it’s important to bear in mind that only 1 percent of new businesses receives venture capital (and would be appropriate for it). It’s the other 99 percent of businesses that create most jobs, employ most people, put yogurt in the fridge and make the world go round. Their founders are great role models too -- and we could use a lot more of them.
I’m glad to say that Venture for America Fellows are building companies in Detroit (and elsewhere) that provide chickpea pasta, property management and shirts for short guys. One of them even has a factory. Makes me proud!
As in the real world, most of us are Unsexy. Let’s bring Unsexy back.