The Entrepreneur’s Weekly Nietzsche (2021) is a how-to guide for disruptors, examining the surprising ways in which this nineteenth-century philosopher can instruct and inspire twenty-first-century entrepreneurs. From business pitches to pride, and from victory to progress, it offers food for thought from an unfamiliar but stimulating perspective.
About the author
Dave Jilk is a former serial entrepreneur. He now spends his time writing on entrepreneurship and AI, as well as composing poetry and dabbling in philosophy.
Brad Feld is an investor and entrepreneur. He’s a partner at the venture capital firm Foundry Group and cofounder of Techstars, a global platform for investment and innovation. He’s also written several books on venture capital and entrepreneurship.
Friedrich Nietzsche was a disruptor of the highest order:
It may seem unusual to advise businesspeople to follow Friedrich Nietzsche’s recommendations. To begin with, the man was a nineteenth-century philosopher, and his works focused on art, ethics, and politics rather than how to run a successful startup or come up with intriguing new commercial endeavors.
Second, Nietzsche was not a great supporter of businessmen. He had a negative attitude toward the business world as a whole, seeing merchants and manufacturers as filthy, small-minded, and unambitious individuals. Could a man like that truly have something to say to entrepreneurs in the twenty-first century?
The main point here is that Friedrich Nietzsche was a disruptor of the highest order.
After all, Nietzsche, like all great entrepreneurs, made disruption his life’s business. Instead of seeking to shake up staid and unimaginative sectors, Nietzsche focused on out-of-date attitudes, beliefs, and modes of thought.
“The reassessment of all values,” as Nietzsche put it, was Nietzsche’s philosophical purpose. Nietzsche wanted to disturb moral judgments that had gone uncontested for millennia with only his eloquence and a powerful mind. Like any great entrepreneur, Nietzsche regarded himself as an ally of the future rather than a past protector.
Nietzsche’s profound insight into human nature was one of the reasons that made his attacks on traditional beliefs so successful. Nietzsche’s moral views may appear cynical and harsh compared to many of his forefathers, but they are often quite compelling.
Another reason every entrepreneur should read up on Nietzsche’s razor-sharp psychological observations. After all, an entrepreneur needs a clear and accurate understanding of human nature. You must understand what drives your customers. You must understand what they desire and why they desire it. You must understand what motivates customers to stick with established brands and what motivates them to change.
Of course, Nietzsche does not directly address these issues. He never published a book on management or company strategy. He did, however, leave a body of work that has proven to be far more disruptive than anybody else’s, making him required reading for all entrepreneurs, from seasoned veterans to apprehensive first-timers.
Differentiation and deviation are necessary for progress:
“Deviating natures are of the utmost importance wherever there is to progress,” Nietzsche wrote in Human, All Too Human, a work published in 1878. But what does that sentence mean, and how can we use it to learn about entrepreneurship?
We all understand what “progress” entails: advancement, improvement, and good change. Whatever you want to call it. But what about people with “deviating natures” who genuinely make things better? What are their characteristics?
In a nutshell, “deviate” implies “to differ or diverge” — to move in a different direction than others. Someone with a deviant disposition has no choice but to do things differently: he is compelled to do so. Sure, such a personality trait can make a person unpredictable, but it also makes him extremely valuable.
The main point here is that progress is dependent on diversity and deviation.
Differentiation is the name of the game when it comes to entrepreneurship. Few businesses succeed by making slight changes to existing products or services; that is not what entrepreneurship is all about. To be an entrepreneur, you must have a vision of how things should be done differently.
This is when deviant natures come into play. People who stray frequently have new, disturbing, and unorthodox ideas – the kinds of ideas that, when successfully executed, catapult businesses to success.
Luke Kanies, the creator of Puppet, an IT automation company, attributes its success to his eccentric nature. Kanies understood the world of system administration was a mess before he introduced Puppet. Everyone did. Kanies attended conferences year after year where his coworkers bemoaned the time they wasted on mundane, repetitive chores they’d rather avoid.
Some people, like Kanies, saw the potential for this mundane activity to be automated. However, rather than acting on their ideas, they debated abstract solutions that never saw the light of day.
Certainly not Kanies. His mentality wouldn’t let him ignore the problem, and his growing dissatisfaction with the old, inefficient way of doing things drove him to design Puppet. This automated framework mimicked the arduous work that sysadmins used to do manually.
Kanye’s refusal to allow a chronic problem to go unanswered, as well as his anger with his colleagues’ passivity, led to the establishment of a successful company. In Nietzsche’s words, his errant nature ushered in progress.
As a company grows, be wary of groupthink:
A single man or woman can establish a business. However, if the company succeeds, it will need to scale up and hire more personnel to keep up with its expansion. Now, while growth is unquestionably a sign of accomplishment and a cause for celebration, it may be worth pausing to consider.
“Insanity in individuals is something exceptional – but it’s the rule in groups, parties, nations, and epochs,” Nietzsche said in his book Beyond Good and Evil. In other words, when individuals create organizations, wisdom can be thrown out the window.
We’re usually rational when we’re alone; when we’re in a group, we’re not so much.
If you’re unsure whether your company suffers from groupthink, take a moment to recall the last few times crucial decisions were taken. How did you arrive at your decision? Was everyone in agreement? Was there ever a unanimous decision?
If that’s the case, you should remember Nietzsche’s advice. If everyone agreed, your company might be in danger of succumbing to groupthink’s “insanity.” Although 100% agreement appears to be a wonderful thing, it is frequently fatal.
Instead of aiming for agreement, businesses should strive for alignment. When a company is aligned, it indicates that its employees are aware of its present goals and are working to achieve them. However, this does not imply that all employees share the same viewpoints or that everyone approves of management’s actions; it indicates that action is coordinated.
The trouble with the universal agreement is that no one can tell you when you’ve made a bad decision. Harmony is wonderful, but it’s preferable to quarrel and thrive than to go harmoniously bankrupt.
Suppose you want to avoid your company developing a culture of unanimity, attempt to establish a culture that values alignment above agreement. Contrarian viewpoints should be fostered until a resolution is reached. After then, it’s time for everyone to pitch in and do their jobs.
Accept your faults and put your pride aside:
Leaders require self-assurance. Whether they’re entrepreneurs, artists, philosophers, or politicians, people who want to lead require a strong feeling of self-worth and a strong conviction in their competence and ability. We doubt ourselves, second-guess our actions, and finally flounder without that kind of self-assurance.
Furthermore, a visible lack of confidence might make it difficult to gain followers – after all, how can anybody else believe you’ll succeed if you don’t?
But, like anything else, confidence must be exercised in proportion. Overconfidence and egotism don’t make for a successful business; they make for poor decisions and irresponsible leaders.
“‘I did that,’ says my recollection,” Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil, warning readers about self-delusion. My pride says, ‘I could not have done it,’ and it persists. Eventually, the memory gives way.’
So, what does this passage mean? Well, it informs us that when a mistake we make clashes with our self-esteem, we frequently convince ourselves that we never made the error in the first place. Our pride stays “inexorable” – that is, uncompromising and reluctant to yield – until we finally deceive ourselves and entirely erase the humiliating recollection.
Most people no longer go to deny and distort their behavior openly. But, to preserve our pride and self-esteem, practically all of us choose a different approach: we create excuses for ourselves and our mistakes and explain away our failures. This can be fatal in the realm of enterprise.
If you continue on this path, people will perceive you as an irresponsible leader who cannot admit blame and thus is incapable of reform. Nobody wants to work with such a person. So, what’s the other option?
In other words, accept full responsibility for all you do, good and bad. This may appear difficult at first, but learning to discern between responsibility and shame will make it easier. Shame can be good in the short term – for example, it might motivate you to make amends when you wrong someone – but it can wear you down over time.
Accepting responsibility without feeling guilty is a skill that can be learned. Recognize your errors, learn from them, and move on.
Represent abstract concepts in a sensory-pleasing manner:
“The more abstract the truth you desire to impart, the more you must allure the senses to it,” Nietzsche says in another of his short insights, this time from Beyond Good and Evil.
It sounds like a proverb for teachers or pastors; after all, who else but educators and religious leaders teach “truths”? Entrepreneurs do this on occasion. What is a pitch, if not an attempt to inform investors about your company’s “truth”? A chance to demonstrate the genuine problem that your solutions solve or your startup’s true, long-term value?
These apparent “truths” can appear unrealistic and abstract from the perspective of a skeptic investor. Nietzsche advises enticing their senses to persuade them.
The main point here is to represent abstract concepts in appealing, visceral ways.
Nicole Glaros is well-versed in the art of seducing investors’ senses. She worked for Scriptpad in 2010, a startup that aimed to automate doctors’ prescriptions and send them directly to pharmacies. On the other hand, Script pad articulated its aim as passionate as possible, rather than expressing its goal in this factual, dry-as-dust manner.
Why should investors be concerned about Scriptpad? What was wrong with prescriptions written on paper? According to the team, the script pad was the logical next step for medical experts because the current system was killing people.
The team exhibited a handwritten, almost unintelligible doctor’s prescription to their audience at this point in the pitch. For many people, a messy prescription like that is all too familiar. But, as the speaker pointed out, the sloppy writing wasn’t insignificant in this case: it caused a pharmacist to dispense the incorrect drug, resulting in the patient suffering a huge, deadly heart attack.
The audience was fully involved at this time, as a genuine sense of dread and concern caused them to sit up and pay attention. When the crew learned that comparable occurrences affect around 1.5 million individuals each year, they were even more alert.
The team ensured that investors were attentive and interested during their pitch by conveying Scriptpad’s objective expressively and engagingly. They enticed investors by moving away from abstraction and presenting a real, striking, and urgent argument.
If you win, make it a big win:
Nietzsche contemplates the type of victory that leaders should strive for in one excerpt from his book Human, All Too Human. “How we Must Conquer,” it begins and asserts, “We need not crave success if we just have a hair’s breadth chance of defeating our opponent.” A good victory makes the defeated joy, and it must have something holy about it that prevents humiliation.”
There’s a lot to dissect and explain there, but the message is clear: close wins aren’t desirable. If we want to win, we need to win magnificently so that our adversaries are taken aback, and we need to win decisively so that we don’t humiliate them.
One of the differences between an entrepreneurial startup and a large, established corporation is that the entrepreneur cannot rely on little advantages and advances.
If your company is large enough, a 1% increase in gross profits could result in millions of dollars in additional net income. On the other hand, entrepreneurs are unable to work in this manner. Entrepreneurs must take an industry by storm or risk failure. They don’t have an established consumer base, economies of scale, or the ability to make small, gradual improvements. They can’t expect to win by a whisker; they’ll have to win big.
This is something that investors are aware of. You’ll have difficulty attracting funding if your company doesn’t appear to be on the verge of revolutionizing a market. Many investors follow the rule of thumb that a start-vision up must be ten times better than its competitors before they consider investing.
Even if you manage to win large, you may believe that your competitors would never “rejoice” at your accomplishment. They might, though, in some ways. Suppose your ideas and business strategy are fresh and unique enough. In that case, you’ll attract people from other industries, and employees from competing companies will want to join you, ecstatic that you’re shaking up their field.