Last night I went to see Michael Gerber, author of the E-Myth series of books, talk about small business. In Gerber’s view, there are three business roles: technician, manager, and entrepreneur. According to Gerber, most people who start businesses are not entrepreneurs—they are “technicians suffering from an entrepreneurial seizure.” A technician looking for independence builds the business around his skills and immediately goes to work. This, Gerber says, is just a job (a job working for a crazy boss). An entrepreneur, in contrast, makes a business that can work without him and creates real independence.
Gerber is an entertaining character—a self described loud wandering Jew. As he tells it, his insight into small business management grew from a number of his early experiences. At one point he sold products door-to-door, during which he was taught to rely on a “selling system,” rather than knowledge of product. He also trained from age nine to eighteen with a teacher of world-class saxophonists. His saxophone teacher insisted on the right way of playing—including a rigidly enforced three hours a day of practicing—and only rewarded Gerber by joining in harmony with his own sax at those rare moments when music at the highest standard was being made.
When Gerber happened into business consulting, he listened to small business owners and their problems and soon came to the conclusion that most business owners do not know anything about business because they manage by anecdote. He then set out to make systems for addressing their problems.
Gerber advocates working “on the business, not in the business.” His advice to the roomful of entrepreneurs to whom he was speaking was to move physically out of the business and start thinking about the business dream, rather than just “doing it, doing it, doing it.” And then to follow examples like McDonalds and create replicable and continuously improving systems for everything, so dependence is reduced on specific employees, including the owner.
I had some skepticism but I also took something from the talk. I started my own business as a technician who had the kind of entrepreneurial seizure of which Gerber speaks. I wrote a computer program and started selling it. I played all the technician roles. I was the computer programmer, the bookkeeper, the bill collector, the trainer, the janitor, the quality control inspector, the technical support representative, the writer of documentation, the graphic designer, the salesman. I enjoyed all of those roles until they became too much for one person, and what is more, even though I have eventually hired someone better than I am at just about every task, I did not give a single one of them up easily.
But as the business has grown, it, and I, have gone through a number of stages of development. I have had to find others to help me. I still cling to some technician roles because I like them or cannot yet give up control, or because I have not yet had the luxury to hire a professional, but the list is pretty short by now. I became a manager (where I have some strong and some weak points) and I have allowed others to take on managerial roles—also with varying degrees of success.
I have also increasingly sought to take time out of the business to think and behave like an entrepreneur. I find that to be a stretch as well; establishing the right vision, exercising leadership, and conveying it to the group is far from automatic.
Gerber said last night that he was not really there to help fix the problems in our current business. He was there to help us start the business that we dream about. I’m thinking about that now.