Aside from the fact that the article is filled with fascinating information about the amazing work Kamen’s company is working on (designing cybernetic limbs for amputees, high performance electric cars, water filtration units for 3rd world countries, etc.), the article also gives us a glimpse into the psyche of a particular breed among movers and shakers in the business world: the natural entrepreneur:
Kamen is almost entirely self-taught, and technically never even graduated from high school. At home in his parents’ basement, Kamen was tinkering with transistorised electronics. At 16, he produced a redesigned audiovisual system for the Hayden Planetarium in Manhattan, and afterwards went into business, making automated lightshows and presentations. Before he left high school, he was earning $60,000 a year; every penny he made, he spent on new equipment; when all his friends went to Woodstock in 1969, he spent the weekend alone in the basement, finishing an order. But Kamen wanted to do something more, something that would change people’s lives for the better: ‘I knew that I didn’t want to make stupid, superfluous things,’ he says. ‘I wanted to make important things.’
He had his chance when his elder brother, a medical student at Harvard, complained of the need to administer automatically measured doses of intravenous drugs to hospital patients. As a result, Kamen experimented with off-the-shelf components, devised the world’s first drug-infusion pump – and formed a company to manufacture it. To meet demand, he needed more equipment, and a bigger workshop, so he hired an architect and a bulldozer, and surprised his parents by sending them on a Caribbean cruise. In their absence he had the house jacked up, the basement expanded into the backyard, filled with machinery so heavy it had to be lowered in by crane, and then covered with a new patio in time for his parents’ return. He carried on paying college tuition for five years, but in the end dropped out without graduating. In the years that followed, he continued to work on advances in medical technology, and produced a portable insulin pump for diabetics. In 1982, he sold the company he had developed, Autosyringe, for about $30 million; he was 30 years old. Shortly afterwards, he created Deka, named for the first letters of ‘Dean Kamen’, and offered the company’s services as inventors for hire.
One of the questions that has tugged at me these last few years has been this: What separates the majority of people from entrepreneurs? Or looking at it from another angle: what makes entrepreneurs different from everyone else?
I am not talking about entrepreneurial facilitators like access to capital (Daddy’s millions allow you to invest in real estate) or family connections (Daddy and Uncle Ted rub elbows with senators and CEOs). There are plenty of people like this in the business world, and while many are successful in their ventures, I would hardly call most of them true entrepreneurs.
Likewise, people driven to own their own businesses aren’t necessarily entrepreneurs either. Franchise owners, for example, work hard and can become extremely successful, but since they BUY into someone else’s business, fail to display two crucial characteristics of true entrepreneurial behavior: Innovation and vision. Franchisees are bound to follow corporate directives. From purchasing to trade dress, everything has already been outlined for them. This form of business ownership may be a form of entrepreneurship, but not in the same way that Bill Gates, Walt Disney, Loic Lemeur, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs and Dean Kamen define the term.
I guess that what I am trying to get at is this: A certain (and very small) percentage of people seem to have what I would call the innovative entrepreneurial gene: While other children construct by-the-numbers baking soda volcanoes or strung-up 3D models of the solar system as their 6th grade science fair project, these special kids instead show up with functional prototypes of completely original products – from energy efficient HC systems to clever medical devices they were inspired to develop for an ailing grandparent. These kids seem to be wired differently from the rest of the class. Just like some children seem to have a natural ability when it comes to music, math, chemistry or writing poetry, these future millionaires seem to have both a natural ability to generate brilliant ideas and and an inner drive to turn them into viable products or solutions.
There has to be an explanation behind what drives a 16 year old kid (Kamen) to start his own company from his parents’ basement, invest every bit of time and money into his work, and eventually send his parents on a cruise so he can hire highly specialized contractors to turn their basement into a giant underground laboratory. There is definitely something different going on there.
Kamen might be an extreme case, sure, but the principle is the same. Until a few years ago, most people I knew had an employee mindset: Go to school, get the right degree, get a job, work hard, move up the ladder, get your two weeks of vacation per year, contribute to your 401K, maybe move around every few years, and eventually retire. More recently though, I have been hanging out with people who instead decided to start their own businesses early on – in many cases right out of college – because… well, it was in their blood. These folks weren’t necessarily backed by family money or influence. They started out just like Kamen, working out of makeshift basement offices, small apartments or quiet coffee shop corners, landing clients, working hard, plugging away at their ideas until they worked well enough to necessitate getting larger digs, hiring more people, investing in new equipment, etc. They are indeed a very different breed.
In the most extreme cases, these are the types of people behind game-changing juggernauts like Napster, Google, Ning, Twitter, Flickr, Apple, Microsoft, Ford, McDonald’s, Nike, Starbucks, Pixar, Michelin and eBay, to name but a few. On a smaller scale (at least for now, and relatively speaking), they are the folks behind such companies as Six Apart, Orange Coat, Cervelo, Liquid Highway and Hybrid: Some may be inventors, designers or engineers while others may just be business-savvy visionaries who tapped into an idea they were passionate about early on and figured out a way to turn it into something valuable, adaptable, lucrative, and remarkable in some way.
These are folks who tend to reject common conventions in favor of a more personal vision of how things should be. They are fiercely independent, extremely focused on their work, amazingly creative (although not necessarily in the artistic sense), intellectually curious and although patient, they are driven by a sense of urgency when it comes to turning their ideas into reality. While by no means extraordinary, these traits are not commonly found together in the majority of people. This is what sets entrepreneurs apart from everyone else. (For more on common traits of entrepreneurs, go here, here, here, here and here. Fascinating stuff.)
I can’t help but think that there must be some kind of entrepreneurial gene out there – or perhaps a combination of genes that together create the ideal entrepreneurial personality: Intellectual curiosity, ingeniousness, wicked analytical skills, confidence, ambition, optimism, charisma, inspiration, discipline, a jedi-like technical aptitude, etc. Sure, nature and nurture are never completely disjointed, but in this case, we are talking almost exclusively about nature, aren’t we? (It would seem that nurture acts more as a facilitator in the sense that an environment that encourages an entrepreneurial child to pursue his/her interests will help them launch their companies earlier in life, while an environment which discourages entrepreneurial endeavors because of economic, political or ideological reasons may create some unfortunate delays.)
So parents, if your child is putting together business plans, strategic briefs or likes to build crazy inventions out of old car parts and discarded computer circuits, don’t blow them off. Encourage them to pursue their ideas and connect with universities, research labs, and yeah, even venture capitalists. Don’t ever push them, but support them every step of the way. Perhaps they won’t get to be the high school football stars or prom queens you wanted them to be, maybe they won’t get to go to law school or medical school either… but those aren’t necessarily bad things. Chances are, your kid’s idea will change the world. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow… maybe it won’t even be this idea or the next, or the one after that, but someday he or she is going to create something big. Something important. Something that will save lives or reduce pollution or help us reach new worlds or improve our quality of life somehow. Something that will also hopefully bring them tremendous wealth and happiness. Weigh that against the other option: Following the common path of unnecessarily getting on someone else’s payroll and never even coming close to reaching their full potential.
So what do you guys think? Could there be an entrepreneurial gene (or ideal combination of genes)? Are entrepreneurs truly wired differently than the majority of their human counterparts? Is this truly an example of nature eclipsing nurture? Or are entrepreneurs made rather than born? What has been your experience?
The comment section is open as is the voting in today’s poll (below). Let me know what you think.
Have a great day, everyone!
image by Carlye Calvin, ©UCAR