During the course of my conversation with veteran entrepreneur Steve Blank, he described himself as the “busiest retired man you’ve ever seen.” That’s a fair assessment. Blank is a prolific blogger and a teacher and lecturer at universities like Berkeley and Columbia. He also works with organizations like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation to, in his words, “commercialize science” and innovation across the country. Sounds like a busy schedule, but Blank is used to this lifestyle.
The New York-bred Blank has spent more than 30 years being involved in the world of startups — both as an entrepreneur founding eight companies and a venture capitalist — in Silicon Valley. Blank, along with fellow entrepreneurs Eric Ries and Alex Osterwalder, is credited with developing the “Lean Startup” movement, an approach that aims to help business owners build their startups with more efficiency.
We caught up with Blank to talk about the importance of family and following your passion.
Q: Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently when you were first starting up?
A: I don’t think looking back I would have changed a thing.
I followed my passion. I guess when you’ve done that in your life it’s hard to say you would do anything different. I did everything I wanted.
Q: What is your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
A: I think you should do something that you can’t wait to show up to work in the morning. And if you don’t have that feeling, you’re in the wrong job.
Entrepreneurship, particularly if you’re a founder, is a calling, not a job. That’s biggest piece of advice I could give any entrepreneur. The problem today is that it’s cool and trendy, so you think you should do it. Entrepreneurship is for crazy people, much like an artists. You don’t get assigned to be a sculptor, a painter or a writer. It’s something that you can’t get rid of. It’s inside of you, dying to get out.
Q: What are you glad you didn’t know then that you know now?
A: I’m glad I didn’t have kids until later in life. A dirty secret of entrepreneurship is that you never get a memo that says you can’t undo personal and family relationships.
I watched people — who I thought were gods at work — who had kids that by the time they left home hated their parents because they had never seen them.
I would opt for a happy family over a pile of money. It was harder doing the family right, cost me one marriage in Silicon Valley but luckily there were no kids. I remember one day my ex-wife asked me, what’s more important: me or your job? I remember sitting there, having to think about it. And then we both looked at each other and realized the marriage was over. That was sad, because I wasn’t mature enough to understand there were more important things than just doing the thing that was driving my passion. My other passion should be the family. And finally when I did get married again and have kids, I had a greater passion, which was to have a great family.
I don’t understand why we’re embarrassed to talk about this [topic] or see it as some sort of sign of weakness. Entrepreneurship is 24/7, but entrepreneurship without a family is meaningless. It’s one of those fool’s gold things.
Q: What do you enjoy about teaching future entrepreneurs?
We started something which became the Lean Startup Movement. It’s a way to build startups a lot more efficiently than we used to. We’ve invented a methodology that has changed people’s lives. We changed the way entrepreneurs built startups and we’ve also changed how VC’s think about funding startups and we’ve changed how school’s teach entrepreneurship.
My intent in teaching is that I realized human beings don’t learn genetically, we don’t pass on our knowledge via DNA. We have to pass it on by making it digestible and repeatable for the next generation. So I decided there was a body of knowledge that we might want to pass on to the next generation of entrepreneurs, so they didn’t have to learn it all again [on their own].
Q: What was the best advice you were ever given?
A: Find out what customers want and need. You can’t be smarter than the collective intelligence of your customers.