A popular approach for aspiring entrepreneurs these days seems to be to corner anyone who will listen with a dialogue on their current hot "idea." The initial outburst usually ends with the question "How much money do you think this is worth?" In my humble opinion, ideas are a commodity, and are really not worth anything, outside the context of a vision and plan.
Over the past couple of decades, experts have perfected the art of brainstorming and other idea-generation techniques. Executives and investors are now increasingly exposed to a wealth of ideas. The result is that ideas are no longer in short supply, and no longer a differentiator in competition.
Visionary leaders, on the other hand, are not so common. A visionary is someone who can make sense out of the wealth of ideas, and weave together a plan for implementation that will make a difference in the world. Steve Jobs, for example, probably gets millions of ideas from his friends, but he seems able to focus a few of these into initiatives that show real innovation.
What separates an idea person from a visionary leader? Most experts agree that a visionary leader not only has ideas, but also has a vision of where these ideas can lead, with strong core values, key relationships, and demonstrates innovative actions, as follows:
- Commitment to core values. Visionary leaders radiate a sense of energy, strong will, and personal integrity. This usually results in a focus on multiple related ideas, leading to real innovation, rather than bouncing from one idea to the next, looking for the "holy grail."
- Positive inspirational communication. People with vision usually start by communicating an inspirational picture of the future, and then integrating individual innovative ideas into this fabric, and show how to get there. The best ones can make the impossible look easy, so everyone, including investors, line up to commit.
- Build strong relationships with strong people. Great relationships are key to every leader. They see people as their greatest asset, and listen as well as talk. Theirs is not the autocratic style of leadership, which tells people what to do and dominates them, but a style which treats partners, investors, and customers as family.
- Willing to take bold actions. These actions somehow always seem to embody a balance of rational (right brain) and intuitive (left brain) functions. Visionaries are often "outside the box" of conventional approaches and move toward long-term change and innovation. They are proactive and anticipate business change, rather than reactive to events.
- Radiate charisma. People with a real vision can communicate ideas with almost a spiritual charisma that energizes people around them to go a step beyond normal boundaries, to solve a technical problem, sign on as a team member, or invest resources, when conventional wisdom would suggest otherwise.
Every investor wants to fund the true visionary leader, but the truth is that these people often don't need funding, or don't ask for it. The best investor pitch, then, is to sell the vision with such conviction that people want to be a part of it, with their money, their skills, or whatever they can bring to the table.
But not every entrepreneur has to be a visionary. There is still plenty of room for incremental improvements, and creativity in providing solutions to short-term problems. This is really the realm of bootstrapped startups, and a small segment of the angel investor community that is looking for a "quick hit" with a quick return.
So my message to entrepreneurs is to tune your approach and your expectations accordingly. I'm always impressed with entrepreneurs who pitch how they plan to bootstrap an idea, but if you need a million dollars, you better have a vision.