So You Want to Be an Entrepreneur?

Mr. Andersson’s first entrepreneurial experience came when he was 16 years old. With savings from the stock market, he acquired an ice cream shop in his neighborhood, hired his siblings and his father (without pay), and made it a successful business which put him and his siblings through college. His most recent success was LightSpeed International, a telecom software company which he sold to Cisco Systems for $160 million in 1998. Prior to that, Mr. Andersson developed the first what-you-see-is-what-you-get word processing software when he founded Interleaf in 1981. In between, he started and ran numerous other businesses. With a masterful brand of self-depreciating humor, Mr. Andersson readily admits that most of those businesses failed.

Today, Mr. Andersson is busy investing his fortune in new promising ventures. He likes what he calls “underappreciated sciences.” He is also president of the Frances and Henry Riecken Foundation, which he created to build libraries and communication centers in the farm villages of Central America. I invite you to join me for my conversation with Mr. Andersson as he shares with us what it is like to be an entrepreneur.

Harbus: Please briefly tell me about yourself.

Andersson: I grew up on Cape Cod. Half a century ago it was like growing up in a different country – Cape Cod was an island economically, culturally, and even politically. I grew up in carpenter’s family, the poorest family in the richest village. I was really good at math which I learned in the early age. I grew up with an idea that I would have to work really hard and get things done to earn some money. Even today when my friends invite me to play golf, I say “I won’t play golf but I can carry your bags. I am a really good caddy.” I enjoy doing my job well more than simply putting a small ball in a tiny hole. I went to Phillips Academy on full scholarship, but then I was expelled when they went out looking for someone who cut the bell ropes.

Harbus: That someone was you, I presume.

Andersson: Yes, yes. I ended up going to MIT instead of Harvard, because MIT didn’t require people to have high school diplomas. So, I studied math, because I’ve always liked theoretical things. I’ve never been interested in facts and still don’t have good factual memory. I would rather think than remember. That means I have a short attention span and have trouble following discussions in class and board meetings. So, I went to MIT. Then I was an active draft dodger and joined the Peace Corps.

Harbus: Where did you go?

Andresson: I went to Honduras and taught math at a university there. Then I became a computer programmer, almost by accident. I really liked it and I was really good at it. I became a computer software development manager, but I did something that no other computer programmer does – I followed a carpenter’s work ethic. That meant finishing your work on time, completing it on budget and remembering that you’re working for a customer. Surprisingly, nobody does that. Creative people don’t like to earn their pay. They like to be subsidized.

Harbus: Is it because they are doing things for the sake of their passion?

Andresson: Well, I have a passion for computer programming, too, but I also feel responsible for results. None of the major software projects were ever completed on time, but all of mine were. That’s the only thing I’ll brag about. What I realized over time though is that this specialty of mine wasn’t really appreciated at places I worked. I was never a conventional person. I never followed cars and baseball and, as a result, had nothing to talk about with my co-workers. I was unhappy everywhere I worked. I would get fired more often than not. And so at the age of 36 in 1980, I quite my last job, threw a champaign party for my colleagues and decided to become an entrepreneur. I decided to become an entrepreneur for the reason so many of us do – we couldn’t think of anything else to do. We had no other prospects. Nobody wanted to hire us and we didn’t want to work for them anyway. We had to go through pain and serial failure of being entrepreneurs because it’s the only thing in life that we can even stand. That’s my story and a story of many of my friends. None of them went into it boldly saying “this is what I always wanted to do.”

Harbus: Interesting, because I think that’s different from what you might find here in the business school. People usually have a plan. Many of us spend quite a bit of time on the fence, pondering our next move. Most end up taking regular jobs.

Andersson: A lot of entrepreneurs are people who got bad grades at school and have trouble getting along with others. You’ve seen enough of me to say that I am a nice guy, but at the same time I am not somebody who goes out of my way to be affable, or conventional, or follow rules, or look like the rest of the crowd. A lot of people like me never had a promotion in their lives.

Harbus: Was that a deciding factor in your success? Sounds like you didn’t have any other options, but to become an entrepreneur.

Andersson: It was because I didn’t have other options, but it was also because there was something entrepreneurial about me. Many terrible things happen to you if you pursue entrepreneurship. But many good things happen to you, too. It’s like climbing a mountain. You know that you have a high probability of frostbite and being crippled, that you’ll be in pain on the way up and down, and that you have a considerable possibility of losing your life. But people volunteer for that, because it’s such a rush!

Several years ago I decided to retire with a small fortune that I made to write my novels. But then opportunities came along and I just had to do it again! Everything is a combination. Most of the things we choose in life we do because we partly have to and partly want to – and neither of those would be quite sufficient. A lot of happiness depends on deciding to enjoy the things that you have no choice about anyway. It’s like being placed in an arranged marriage where you made a spouse to a stranger. Well, you can make that work if you want to. I got myself pushed out of the corporate world in which I didn’t fit, but I decided to have a good attitude about it. Many of these things are inborn. A friend of mine told me that entrepreneurs are typified by their ability to get from one failure to another to another with undiminished enthusiasm. You either have that or you don’t. It’s not something that you choose to have.

Harbus: So can entrepreneurs be made?

Andersson: Like almost all of our identities, entrepreneurs are partly born and partly made. Say, you had a conventional career all your life and suddenly you decide to become an entrepreneur. What you’ll probably end up having is a more sober business, where you will apply lessons that you learned in more sober ways. Your business plan will be more complete, your upfront financing will be more solid, and your percentage ownership in the company will be smaller.

Harbus: Smaller?

Andersson: Yes, smaller. If you line up everything that you ought to do instead of jumping into it half baked, if you have everything planned in advance instead of taking a flyer, if you involve other people and pay them salaries instead of maxing out your credit cards, then obviously other people are going to own a lot more of your equity. Other people will also have more control of your situation. That means that if you are not entrepreneurial by nature and you’re going into this, you will eventually recreate for yourself a more conventional type of business. The outcomes of such a business will also be more conventional – you will have a lower risk and lower reward. And that’s fine, I applaud that, it’s just not for me.

Harbus: What you’re saying is that there are shades of gray of

Andersson: Yes, there are shades of gray of everything.

Harbus: W
hat is your definition of entrepreneurship then?

Andersson: Entrepreneurship, as I know it, is when people, or entrepreneurs, invent their way of living, they invent their way of working, and they invent their own types of companies and projects. It’s not a pattern. Each situation is a reflection of a unique personality. Nothing that I will tell you is necessarily going to apply to any another person.

Not to any other inborn entrepreneur, not to someone who is not an entrepreneur, or not to someone who wants to become one. I almost have a bad conscience about teaching to people. What I want to tell is my story. It’s just what one guy did.

Harbus: My observation here in the business school is that many aspiring entrepreneurs end up not pursuing their passions because they have so much already invested in their lives. They are afraid to risk and lose what they have. What would you tell those people?

Andersson: Again, you imply that there are objective sorts of analysis of motivations and risks. But these things are not objective at all. These are all essentially matters of personality. When you talk about risk – well, what is risk? If you talk about losing all your money, and getting a bad credit rating, and getting a bad reputation, and having to start over from scratch – is that a risk? I don’t think of it that way. Most people would, but I’ve actually gone that cycle many times over. I think of it as a learning experience. We live in a country where no person of sound mind is going to starve on the streets. I can fail at business any number of times, but I can still make a living and feed my children and get emergency medical care. I don’t think of it as a major risk. Here’s what I think of as a risk that maybe you don’t. I worked for a year as an actuary to pay some bills. My idea of a risk is that I become comfortable with that, that I earn some salary, that I rotate and climb a corporate ladder, that I wind up with an office on the 40th floor, that a lot of people work for me, that I make a six figure salary and have several million dollars in stock options. To me- that’s a risk! It sounds like the most miserable life I could lead. These are not questions you analyze, this is about what you are. I will not say to anyone “be an entrepreneur, be like me.” I think that’s wrong. Try to be honest with yourself and you will be happier.

Harbus: Thank you, Mr. Andersson.

Andersson: My pleasure.