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Scientists and Engineers

A few weeks back, Jeff and I had this discussion about entrepreneurs.  Jeff posits that there are two kinds of entrepreneurs out there.  Now there are lots of ways to slice and dice entrepreneurs, but the way that he talked about it was interesting, so I wanted to pass it along.

The theory is that entrepreneurs are either scientists or engineers.  Scientists are people who are always searching for something new.  Think Alexander Fleming or Watson and Crick.  Their batting average is very low, but when they get a hit, it is almost always a major deal.  Think today of all of those scientists working to solve the mysteries of cancer or AIDS or the Higgs Boson.  Most of them will work their entire lives on these difficult problems and achieve little success.  But those that do succeed, will do so in a big way.

In business, probably the most famous scientist is Steve Jobs.  He has created new technologies almost single handedly.  But there are others; think of Phil Knight of Nike or Howard Schultz of Starbucks, who have fundamentally changed the way that we look at their market spaces. It takes someone who is willing to put all of their chips (and those of their investors) on the line on that single effort.  Today, we look at the success that Steve Jobs is and declare that there is no way that he could lose, but in fact, if the iPod had failed, the future of Apple as a going concern would not be guaranteed,

On the other side of the coin are the engineers.  These are folks who look to optimize the existing market space through tweaks. Most entrepreneurs fall into this category.  They look at the current offerings and say I could do a better job, if only I changed something.  They build upon the work of the scientists. Perhaps it is going after a different geographic segment, using a different distribution model or maybe changing the design of the product to better fit a perceived hole in the market.  Here think of Avis vs. Hertz or Vizio vs. Sony. In any case, the engineer probably has a different success curve.  This one would look more like the typical bell curve, where a majority see some success and some fail and a few hit a home run.  This is not the place where you typically see a grand slam, but there are a lot of .250 hitting shortstops in the history of the Major Leagues who have earned a decent living.

The good news is that either option can work.  But as with most things in life, risk tolerance will play into your strategy. If you are the kind of person to put it all on the line, you must still have a great new idea and execute well.  If so, you can reap the huge rewards.  On the other hand, slow and steady can also win the race.  Sergey Brin and Larry Page are engineers (in both senses of the word) who through Google, developed a better way to search the web.  They certainly did well for themselves.

Understand who you are and your preferred mode of operation.  Once you can understand this, it will help guide your growth as an entrepreneur.

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