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Aiming Blind and Big

by Stuart Crainer

Talking to entrepreneurial leaders you never know what to expect. Sometimes their business idea appears badly developed.  Other times it is so highly developed that they can appear caught in an entrepreneurial straightjacket of great intentions.  Likewise, the personalities and characters of the entrepreneurs vary wildly.  Some MBA types seem fixated on spreadsheets and preparing for every known and unknown variable.  Others appear more pragmatic, willing to go with the flow.

Pragmatism should not be interpreted as a sign of weakness.  This was brought home talking with Sarah Wood of Unruly, a company that started life in 2006. There was, she laughingly admitted, no master plan.  Indeed, there was no plan.

“The idea didn’t come first. The idea of Unruly came after we’d founded the company,” she says.  This, we observe, is not the conventional approach. Most organizations have an idea of what they want to do but no idea of how to make it a reality.  “I don’t think there is a right way or a wrong way. Hopefully we’re proof of that.  When we founded the company we could see there was a real tipping point in the online culture. This was the shift from web 1.0 to web 2.0, moving from the web as an information highway to being a two-way conversation. There were already sites like Flickr, Digg and Delicious. It was a really interesting intellectual opportunity because you could see all these people were talking back, talking to each other, talking to brands. The web was no longer about having broadcasters sitting on top, dictating what people were going to watch, what people were going to say. It was much more of a two-way street. It was much more unruly and that’s where the name came from because the whole media landscape was very unruly.”

Wood joined forces with Scott Button, whom she had known since university, and Matt Cooke.  Button and Cooke had worked together at Connextra and used some of their profits from their stakes in Connextra as seed funding for the new business.  The trio reckoned they had enough money for 18 months – “A runway big enough to have lots of ideas, but short enough that we needed those ideas to get traction and if they didn’t work we needed to move onto the next one”.

Though Wood describes herself as an “accidental entrepreneur” there is nothing accidental about her or the company’s ambitions.  The trio of Unruly founders may not have had a killer idea but they had something that can be even more powerful: bold ambition.  “We did have an end game and it was to build a billion-dollar business and we were very clear about that right from the start, and we still are. We want to build a billion-dollar business.  That’s still what we’re shooting for and that really helps us make decisions because when we’re looking for new products and we’re making decisions about who we acquire, we say to ourselves, is this helping us get to be a billion-dollar business?”

This is not only great entrepreneurial shorthand it also works for leaders.  The best leaders have a killer question they use to test decisions against.  What is your shorthand for success?

This is not decorative. A thrilling, exciting purpose is vital to creating a positive culture. It is the job of the leader to create excitement.  This is how Warren Bennis put it:  “The new leader keeps reminding people of what’s important. Organizations drift into entropy and the bureaucratization of imagination when they forget what’s important. Simple to say, but that one sentence is one of the few pieces of advice I suggest to leaders: Remind your people of what’s important. A powerful enough vision can transform what would otherwise be routine and drudgery into collectively focused energy.

“Witness the Manhattan Project. The U.S. Army had recruited talented engineers from all over the United States for special duty on the project. They were assigned to work on the primitive computers of the period (1943‑45), doing energy calculations and other tedious jobs. But the Army, obsessed with security, refused to tell them anything specific about the project. They didn’t know that they were building a weapon that could end the war or even what their calculations meant. They were simply expected to do the work, which they did slowly and not very well. Richard Feynman, who supervised the technicians, prevailed on his superiors to tell the recruits what they were doing and why. Permission was granted to lift the veil of secrecy, and Robert Oppenheimer gave them a special lecture on the nature of the project and their own contribution.” The rest is history.

Stuart Crainer is co-founder of the Thinkers50.