Startup Secret No. 25: In praise of the CEO idiot-savant

For many tech entrepreneurs, the American Dream isn't about striking it rich and retiring.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
2 min read

"Do it because you can't do anything else."


I've made a minor career of studying entrepreneurs. Among them, there's an especially interesting subset: The serial entrepreneur.

Being a serial entrepreneur who's successful at more than one company is not the American Dream. In the standard-issue American fantasy, the one that politicians and banks promote, you start one company, and if it doesn't work out, you do it again. Until you hit on a winner. And then you cash out, buy a lake-front house and a fishing boat, and retire. The dream is to stop working.

There's nothing wrong with being an American Dream Entrepreneur. In the tech economy, many A.D.Es who find success take their winnings and funnel them back into the tech economy by becoming angel investors or VCs. We love them for it.

But the serial entrepreneur can't stop working in operations, even after they're "post-economic"--that is, set for life. The serial entrepreneur heads back to the mines again. Not to make more buckets of money (that would be the "mogul," another species in this genus) but because it is, for many of them, all they know how to do.

They don't know how to be admirals, and they don't want to be. All they know is how to captain their own damn ships.

Craig Palmer told me yesterday when we talked about his latest job, being the CEO of Wikia, that he knows what he's best at: "Amplifying" a start-up that has some traction but that hasn't yet begun to build the bridge across the chasm. He's tried starting companies from scratch (eWanted, a reverse auction site I covered way back in 1999) and it didn't work out. But when he was CEO of Gracenote, which he did not start, it was a match: He came in, helped the company along, and sold it to Sony for $260M. Now he's at it again, with Wikia. (My take: Wikia's future lies in 'second screen' content.)

If Wikia has a nice exit, I think Craig will be back again to hustle another just-past-startup company up the ladder. "I need to continue to reinvent myself," he says. That's not quite accurate. He may keep learning about new technology industries, but he knows where in the food chain he belongs. "I know what I'm good at," he says.

Do you know what you're good at? Don't you want to do it forever?

Previously (2005): If You Can Make It in Silicon Valley, You Can Make It... in Silicon Valley Again (NY Times)

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