• August 2012

Successful Entrepreneurs Are "B" Students, Not "A" Students

By Bo Peabody
LUCKY OR SMART: Secrets to an Entrepreneurial Life

My mom always used to say, “Bo, whether you go to Harvard or to the local community college, no matter what, you’ll always get a ‘B.’”

She was right.

“B” students don’t know everything about anything and are excellent at nothing. “B” students do, however, know something about a lot of things, and we can complete almost any task with some modicum of competence.

People often ask me: “As an entrepreneur, what exactly do you do?” My answer: “I do nothing. But I do it very well.” Entrepreneurs are ‘B’ students. There is no one thing we do well. But there are many things we do well enough.

“A” students, on the other hand, know a lot about one thing, whether it is technology or marketing or sales or finance. And they do this one thing extremely well. If they don’t do it well, it bothers them. “A” students want to do things perfectly all the time. This is a very bad trait for an entrepreneur, but a very good trait for a manager. More on this later.

The biggest downside of the entrepreneur’s penchant to understand everything about nothing and a little bit about a lot of things is that they get bored quickly with any one task.

The ability to focus and be patient is typically associated not with entrepreneurs but with managers. Entrepreneurs want results immediately, while managers are happy to wait, confident that if they execute perfectly over time, the hoped-for results will follow eventually.

Entrepreneurs’ short attention spans allow them, or maybe even force them, to think laterally. Because managers, on the other hand, can stay focused on one topic for a long period of time, they are able to—in fact prefer to—think in a more linear fashion.

Lateral thinking is necessary in a start-up where the entrepreneur is constantly being pulled off course when plans don’t go as planned, while linear thought is required in more mature companies where getting several hundred or several thousand people to stick to a plan is absolutely necessary to get anything done.

Whenever I speak to a group of business school students, I run them through a little game. I ask everyone who ever started a business to raise his or her hand. Typically, about half of the people do. I then ask those who are still running that same business to keep their hands up. Very few do.

I then propose that those who raised their hands and then put them down are typical entrepreneurs: great at starting things, but maybe not so great at managing them. I conclude by recommending that these entrepreneurs take a look at the people who didn’t raise their hands, jot down their names, give them a call next time they are about to start a business, and ask them to run it. Those people are the managers.

The most important thing to realize when you’re a “B” student entrepreneur is that you need “A” student managers. You must listen to them. You have no choice.

The good news is that “A” students must listen to “B” students, because “B” students know about aspects of life and business that A-students know nothing about. While most “A” students are really good at one thing, they tend to be completely out to lunch when it comes to most everything else.

On the other hand, “B” students are really good at being sort of good at everything. The sooner the “B” students and the “A” students understand and appreciate each other, the more productive everyone will be.

I had a standing bet with the programmers at Tripod, whom I affectionately considered a posse of hooligans, all of whom were “A” students. The bet was that I could configure a web server before any of them could raise $1 million. The stakes of the bet: my founder’s share of Tripod stock for their smaller share.

To raise $1 million from investors, you must be able to talk intelligently, or at least convincingly, about every aspect of a business. To configure a web server—an extremely complicated task—you must forget about every other aspect of the business and focus on that alone.

One of the reasons Tripod worked so well is that no programmer ever took me up on that bet. Neither side wanted to win. I knew just enough about how to configure a web server to scare them, and they were so good at configuring web servers that it scared me. We knew we needed each other.

There are, of course, exceptions to the “A” student/“B” student rule. We all know at least one. Take Bill Gates for instance, who both founded Microsoft and managed it into the largest corporation in the world. While Bill Gates never graduated from Harvard, he did go there and he did get “A“s.

Or consider Warren Buffet, who started Berkshire Hathaway and manages it to this very day. Warren got his “A“s at Wharton. Or Matt Harris, my co-founder of Village Ventures, who not only helped start the company but also serves as its managing partner.

I don’t know Bill or Warren, but I do know Matt. And while I went to neither Harvard nor my local community college, I did go to college with Matt. And he got “A“s in half the time it took me to get “B“s. I know this is true because we shared a room, and I was in that room studying a hell of a lot more than he was.

In the end, the job of entrepreneurs is to attract, organize, and motivate “A” student managers. And the only way we can do that is to realize, accept, and embrace the fact that we are “B” students. An army of “B“s with a sprinkling of “A“s is a very good report card at any school—and an indication of an entrepreneur in the making!

About Bo Peabody

Bo Peabody is co-founder and managing general partner of Village Ventures, an early- stage venture firm with more than $175M under management as well as a services and knowledge-sharing platform serving a network of 14 venture funds with more than $500M under management.

In 1992, Peabody founded Tripod, Inc., one of the original social networks. Tripod was sold to Lycos in 1998 and Peabody became vice president of Network Strategy. Lycos was sold to Spain’s Terra Networks in 2001. In 1998, Peabody co-founded Streetmail (now called Everyday Health); in 2000, he co-founded VoodooVox; in 2004, he co-founded HealthGuru Media; and in 2006 he co-founded UplayMe. Peabody also co-owns Mezze, Inc., a hospitality group consisting of three award-winning restaurants.

An expert in consumer-oriented businesses, he is an investor and board member at Babble, Makeover Solutions, and Top Ten Reviews; and a board observer at Travel Ad Network. He has been featured in major business and consumer publications, and has received numerous honors. His book for entrepreneurs, called “Lucky or Smart?” was published by Random House in January 2005.

A graduate of Williams College, Peabody lives in New York City and Williamstown, MA. He is a Trustee of The Academy at Charlemont.

Click here for more information: villageventures.com.