January 13th, 2010

What entrepreneurs and startups can learn from the whole Conan O’Brien debacle


What entrepreneurs and startups can learn from the whole Conan O’Brien debacle

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few days… What’s that? Oh. No, nothing against that. I mean, it’s a nice rock. I like that one part over there. I wasn’t being serious. It’s just a turn of phrase, you know?

Ahem. Anyway.

Conan O’Brien, the host of The Tonight Show—a dynasty of late night television—was recently told that his show was going to be bumped back to follow Jay Leno at 12:05. His response? “No, it’s not.”

So it has come to this: I cannot express in words how much I enjoy hosting this program and what an enormous personal disappointment it is for me to consider losing it. My staff and I have worked unbelievably hard and we are very proud of our contribution to the legacy of The Tonight Show. But I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction. Some people will make the argument that with DVRs and the Internet a time slot doesn’t matter. But with the Tonight Show, I believe nothing could matter more.

And while the media kerfuffle surrounding the situation is reaching a fevered pitch, I keep seeing something in Conan’s actions that are quite noble. And in those actions are valuable lessons for startups and entrepreneurs everywhere.

So I thought I’d break from the news, get a little introspective, and provide a little op/ed. If you’ll indulge me.

I’m hopeful that these reminders keep you working on that startup. Keep you focused on what’s actually important. And keep you continuing to make Portland and the Silicon Forest awesome.

The lessons?

Have a vision.

I’d like to believe that Conan has always had an idea of where he’d like to go. He might not have had a clear understanding of how he was going to get there. But he got there.

At the surface, Conan wanted to be the host of The Tonight Show. But his vision was to become an iconic talk show host—a person whom we would invite into our homes on a daily basis.

And that’s the same for entrepreneurs: you have to have a goal so you know when you’ve made it. It doesn’t have to be lofty. But it can be. It doesn’t have to be complex. But it can be.

Just have one. And once you have one in which you truly believe…

Stick to that vision, come hell or high water.

Once you’ve determined where you want to go. Or what you want your product to be. Or what problem you want to solve. Stick to that vision.

Conan got to be the host of The Tonight Show, but he hadn’t really achieved his vision yet. He hadn’t really met his true goal. And he realized that.

And the same things will happen to you in your startup.

Things are going to go wrong. Technology is going to change. The economy is going to go up or down. People will come and go. Customers will come and go.

It doesn’t matter. What matters is your vision. What matters is that you remain true to that end goal.

Be willing to sacrifice to achieve that vision.

This one is probably the most difficult for all of us. Because we either fall in love with the technology. Or we feel too safe in our current role. Or we’ve finally attained our goal and we just want to cling to it.

But, you see, I can’t say we love those things more than Conan loved The Tonight Show. And he was willing to give that up. To achieve his vision.

Fact of the matter is that you’re going to hit some bumps along the way. And the true goal should always be achieving that vision. Not, again, the path you take to achieve that vision. The vision, itself.

Maybe you need to change your codebase. Maybe you need to burn the midnight oil. Maybe you uncover a target market you had no idea existed. Maybe you need to help someone do something mundane in an excellent and efficient way. Maybe you need to give up part of the ownership in your project to ensure that it continues to thrive. Maybe you need to start all over.

Whatever the case, as an entrepreneur, your life is a series of sacrifices. But each one should be a step along the path toward that vision.

But to get there, you have to have vision.

And finally, maybe one lesson for those of you working a “safe” day job, dreaming one day of making the leap to the startup world: There is no such thing as a safe job.

I’m not advocating for you to put yourself or your family at risk. I’m not advocating for you to do something foolish. But what I am saying is that, if you’re simply staying at that job because it seems safer than the startup environment, you’re staying for the wrong reasons.

And we could really use you out here. Achieving your vision.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming, already in progress.

(Image courtesy vtdainfo. Used under Creative Commons.)

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8 Responses to “What entrepreneurs and startups can learn from the whole Conan O’Brien debacle”

  1. This is a very inspiring post on many levels. First, I’m relieved there’s a positive lesson in all of this mainstream media world drama. Second, this is great advice for everyone, I think — not just startups. Thanks.

  2. Stacy says:

    “And finally, maybe one lesson for those of you working a “safe” day job, dreaming one day of making the leap to the startup world: There is no such thing as a safe job.”

    Amen. And just what I needed to hear this week/month/year. ;) Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Steph says:

    Yes! Thank you! This is a terrific post and, like the previous commenter said, great advice to anybody.

  4. Sandie says:

    WOW, this was quite the article, really hit home. I had a vision 20 years ago andthought I had found it after reading this I feel like I am back in the safe mode. I have a great business that I love but where is it going or better yet where am I going with my vision? This artilcle gives me lots to think about. Maybe it is time for a new vision.

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