Rare are individuals who possess the sensitivities and wit of a poet yet the razor sharp commercial acumen of an entrepreneur. Felix Denis (the founder of Denis Publishing, the creators of Maxim magazine and PC Pro) was just this sort of rare individual. Known as someone who “lived life on his own terms”, Denis had a penchant for poetry which flows unabatedly through his best-seller “How to Get Rich”. In this entrepreneurial must-read, he weaves flawlessly between poetry and prose to deliver a surprisingly witty and informative account on wealth creation, despite the banal, crass title.
Last month, the great Felix Denis died at age 67, I dedicate this article to him in the best way possible: by delving into the realm of poetry myself, searching for wisdom for my entrepreneurial readers.
Not so long ago, I was in Shoreditch at a Bombay Sapphire themed pop-up bar meeting an entrepreneur and pondering business ideas over gin concoctions late into the night. As I sheepishly announced my departure (it was just before midnight), he eloquently recited a stanza from The Ladder of St. Augustine by H.W Longfellow. The spontaneity made me chuckle but deeper than the jest of the recital- the words really resonated with me.
Here’s the verse from the Ladder of St. Augustine.
“The heights by great men reached and kept
We’re not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
We’re toiling upward in the night.”
Taking this passage and relating it to entrepreneurship, it takes hard work (and far more of it than our peers) to reach that ‘life changing’ moment.
But these moments don’t come easy. Successful entrepreneurs have tireless work-ethics, even if their outward style (think Mark Zuckerberg in his shorts and flip flops) suggests otherwise. In the modern business world, it’s about what you can do, not how you look. You will not find a successful entrepreneur who does not have this tireless attitude to business.
I was lucky to have realised this truism of entrepreneurship many years ago and have since been setting my alarm for 5am. These ‘night time’ stints create two ‘me’ hours every morning – time to ‘toil’ and execute without distractions. While many of my companions sleep, these are the most productive hours of my day.
Having avoided poetry since high school English Literature, the lines from Longfellow had my creative juices flowing.
My research led me to a passage from Invictus by W.H Henley, which holds a precious lesson on the fear of failure.
“Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.”
While Henley clearly wrote this passage with other things on his mind, there is wisdom in here for entrepreneurs. The entrepreneur’s journey is pitted with ‘horrors’ and ‘menaces’ (cash flow, poor performance, competitive threats, to name a few). A savvy and tenacious entrepreneur will control his fate by assessing the upsides and downsides and taking a calculated view. What separates the savvy and tenacious from everyone else is the ability to overcome their fears and to take an action based on that view.
Entrepreneurs are eternal optimists
In my poetic studies, the verse below ‘Hope is a thing with feathers’ by Emily Dickinson seemed to reach out to me. One could argue that Dickinson’s entire career was based on hope; less than a dozen of her eighteen hundred poems were actually published during her lifetime.
“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.”
I was conversing with a fellow investor last week about the CEO of a company we were looking to invest in. My co-investor was adamant that the CEO wasn’t a leader and that may be a deal-breaker. Not understanding the rationale, I asked why; the response from this seasoned investor was that the leader needs to be an eternal optimist. The CEO hadn’t displayed the sufficient dose of optimism to convince my investor friend.
The entrepreneur has to believe he can break boundaries and be able to convince others of that too. The finance and operations directors are the ones that bring everyone back down to earth, and this balance is necessary, but the entrepreneur/leader must believe anything is possible.
At The Speed of Life
Life is ephemeral and ever changing so never be afraid to move on. This next stanza – A Dream within a Dream by Edgar Allan Poe – offers one of life’s most important lessons: nothing lasts forever.
“You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.”
More than a century after these verses were written, they still hold true. Today, markets are constantly changing: competitors emerge faster as building businesses becomes ever easier with the advent of plug and play software, APIs, and pay-as-you-go services. In this brave new world, business strategies need to be able to pivot rapidly. New businesses often start with one strategy – and then through trial and error – end up adopting an entirely different path.
Don’t burst your bubble
The monologue starting with ‘All the world’s a stage’ from the comedy ‘As You Like It’ by William Shakespeare looks at the seven stages of a man’s life from infancy to old age. The verse below looks at the fourth stage known as ‘the soldier’ – where men are willing to risk death to earn a reputation for themselves.
“Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth.”
This verse can be related to the entrepreneur who isn’t afraid to take big risks to make a name. In the process, these entrepreneurs often experience business failures and learn invaluable lessons. Entrepreneurs set their sights high and often aim to achieve rapid success. The ‘bubble’ can rise very fast but pop just as quickly tarnishing one’s reputation, which in my view is an entrepreneur’s greatest intangible asset. This passage sends a foreboding message about reputation management – one that is not to be ignored in the age of social media.
My journey into the realm of poetry would only be complete if I trialed one of my own. With absolutely no intention to seek a career as a published poet, I venture below into the unknown…in honour of the great Felix Dennis, who leaves us a legacy of poetry inspired by a lifetime of entrepreneurship. For once, I can use the words ‘entrepreneur’ and ‘poet’ in the same sentence without sounding foolish.
The Fail Fast Limerick
There once was entrepreneur called Ken,
Who failed at business time and again,
But his spirit stayed strong,
He learnt from his wrongs,
Now an IPO is a matter of when!