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Early Achievers Often Become Shooting Stars

July 19, 1987|SRULLY BLOTNICK | Srully Blotnick is a business psychologist and the author, most recently, of "Ambitious Men: Their Drives, Dreams and Delusions."

Success can be intoxicating, especially when financial achievement is involved. Make a moderate amount of money and you may soon find yourself convinced that there is no limit to how much more you can make.

Not everyone falls prey to this heady vision. But Barry Minkow, the 21-year-old founder of the now-closed ZZZZ Best carpet-cleaning company, is typical of one large group of early achievers who get themselves into trouble.

Many describe Minkow's failure as a case of "too much, too soon." More important, a close look at a variety of similar, and admittedly less spectacular, entrepreneurial collapses indicates that they usually were preceded by a somewhat megalomaniacal feeling that "my heyday is just now about to begin."

Runaway Vision of Success

Nothing achieved up to that point seemed even to matter; immediately taken for granted, it was viewed from then on by the high-flying entrepreneur as mere preparation for vastly greater accomplishments.

Having studied more than 900 entrepreneurs over the last two decades, it seems safe to say that there is a pattern not only to early achievement, but also to building an enduring enterprise. As it turns out, there are several types of early achievers.

A young sales-oriented professional such as Minkow, whether in business for himself or working for someone else, is the most prone to a runaway vision of success. If nothing internal acts as a brake, competition from established rivals in the field generally serves the purpose nicely.

But when competitors don't put up much resistance, these early achievers easily can cross the line into fantasy land.

A second large group of early achievers consists of technology types, people so fond of tinkering--especially alone or with a few other techies--that it is a little surprising a commercial product ever results from the activity.

Some Social Animals

Needless to say, the successful entrepreneurial techie is precisely one who pays some attention to the market, if not initially, then later on as a salable product is developed. Steven P. Jobs, co-founder of Apple, and, even more so, Bill Gates of Microsoft, embody the type.

The technically oriented early achiever also may have recurring dreams of instant wealth. But they tend not to go to the extremes of sales-oriented entrepreneurs. How come? What helps keep the feet of scientists and engineers on the ground?

Andrew S. Grove, president of Intel, recently gave me a very good answer. "The Japanese--they serve as a constant reminder that you can lose quickly what you've worked long and hard to build."

The third and final, easily identifiable, category of early achiever consists of people who are highly social. The very prospect of working alone in a lab or library for days on end makes them shudder. They want to be with people and are as attracted to lights, noise and crowds as a moth to a flame. This, they rightly feel, is where they shine.

Their most frequent choice of businesses? No. 1 is restaurants, where they often get to play maitre d' and manager, at least in the beginning, and in any event are able to mix sociability and a good income if a regular clientele develops.

These proprietors may not make three-quarters of a billion dollars by the time they are 31, as did Microsoft's Gates, but they can indeed become multimillionaires by opening more than one place.

Actually, anything connected with food (an inherently social product) will do. Mrs. Field's cookies, not to mention David's, are products turned out by people who couldn't do a stint as lighthouse keepers if they tried.

To them, business is hard work but also closer to being, in the words of a highly profitable catering service owner, "just an endless party for which I get paid."

How about the considerable number of people who don't fit neatly into any of the three categories--sales, technical or social? As it turns out, these "misfits" are in luck.

It may make one's business life easier in the beginning to be a pure type, since one's focus is that much more single-minded. Nevertheless, a hybrid (someone who combines a variety of skills from the three categories) is much more likely to experience sustained success.

That is because it takes a variety of different personality facets to deal with the multiplicity of people one inevitably encounters as a business grows.

How could Lee A. Iacocca have turned a large company like Chrysler around if he had had the salesman's traditional contempt for "the pie-in-the-sky guys in the lab"?

Conversely, technically oriented entrepreneurs usually sneer at salespeople, describing them as stupid, crass and superficial. Yet someone has to move the ingenious products the young entrepreneur creates.

It is a dangerous myth in business to believe that the world will beat a path to your door once you've developed a better mousetrap. There are too many doors now; the customers get confused. Aggressive sales, marketing and advertising campaigns are necessary before the public even gets to know your name.

Revealingly, it was Steven Jobs' refusal to give marketing and sales sufficient emphasis that eventually cost him his position at Apple. An executive from a soft-drink company--where marketing is everything, since the product certainly isn't high-tech--took over instead.

How much better, then, if the person at the helm is a hybrid, embodying at least in moderate measure the different skills that will be needed to deal with people from the three categories.

Early achievers who have been able to retain their success, and avoid becoming shooting stars like Minkow, develop their personality at the same time that they develop their business. As it grows professionally, they grow personally.

It is a strain, they often say ("I'm dealing with people now I'd probably never invite to dinner"). But that is what it seems to take in the modern business world to produce lasting achievement.

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