Are you a Fox or are you a Hedgehog?

Many people sit on the sidelines – never taking the bold step themselves but criticising those that do. More than half of all start-ups fail and an even a smaller percentage go on to be ‘game changers’. Both physically and emotionally, it would be a lot easier to work in a normal corporate job with normal hours and a stable income, but I’m guessing if you’re reading this article, that’s not what you want. You want to be a ‘dreamer’ and the only thing stopping you from pursuing those dreams is a fear of failure, self-doubt, lacking specialist skills, and simply not having done it before.

The power of ‘foxy’ thinking
Approximately 2,700 years ago, the Greek poet Archilochus wrote that “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The world is increasingly an uncertain place, and navigating it is probably better suited to a fox than a hedgehog. In a recent 20-year study by Professor Philip Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania, it was concluded that generalists, or people whose behaviour resembles that of a fox, are far better at navigating uncertainty – as “they know many little things, draw from an eclectic array of traditions,” and are more likely to thrive in an environment where one has to “accept ambiguity and contradictions.”

When I started the HBRE platform in 2010, many around me were skeptical about my credentials in property, or lack thereof. I wasn’t connected in the property industry, I didn’t have an MSc in Real Estate, and I didn’t have a background in venture capital. I basically lacked depth of expertise and clearly wasn’t a specialist. I wasn’t a hedgehog. This could have easily stopped me, but I believed in myself and put my energy into making it happen. People often forget that an entrepreneur doesn’t need to know everything. Like the fox, we are resourceful creatures that recognise the skills we have or haven’t got. Where there’s a gap, a good entrepreneur will find someone to fill it. The only skill an entrepreneur really needs is the initiative to network with the right people to make an idea happen.

My advice: The best entrepreneurs are generalists. Make sure you know a little bit about everything – just so you have enough knowhow to hire the right specialists.

Wear “mental armour”
Going for scale can be a scary thought. We’re all surrounded by ‘doom-mongers’ who are waiting for us to fail and that can make us doubt ourselves. We’re all human and what people say can get us down, but you have to be able to blank it out. When someone tells you that you can’t do something you need to find a way to ‘pivot in your mind’ and think about something else. Wear some “mental armour” as Felix Dennis (entrepreneur and writer) says. The problem with most of us is that we look for reassurance from our peers before deciding to move in a certain direction – and that’s probably our biggest mistake.

My advice: Listen to the advice of others but make your own decisions, even if that decision upsets people in your team.

There will always be unknown unknowns
“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” – Donald Rumsfeld

At the end of the day, you can get all the reassurance you like about a key decision you need to make, but you’ll never know for sure until you’re in execution mode.

I’ve invested in seven businesses over the last 24 months – and people always ask me how I know that I’ve picked a winner. We do as much due diligence as possible on a deal, but in truth, you just don’t know. The only thing I do know is that you could sit there actionless or go for scale and give yourself a chance of making it. You can’t let the ‘unknown unknowns’ overwhelm your decision about whether to move forward or not. In my case, there’s no such thing as a perfect business and I know that I’ll have to improve things as I go along.

My advice: Keep shipping. The only way to navigate uncertainty is by ‘trial and error’.

Overcoming “fear of failure” can be practiced
Corporates fail to recognise employees who have had the boldness to try something new but failed. It’s that staid corporate culture which, in my opinion, affects a corporate individual’s mindset and discourages them from starting up their own venture. Perhaps there is a negative correlation between successful entrepreneurs and corporate experience; entrepreneurs simply have less formal training and dogmas constraining their thinking.
A lot of the founders I’ve come across are from corporate backgrounds and the key hurdle for them is getting over their fear of making a mistake when it comes to making key business decisions. I’ve seen it time and time again; they come up with an idea and debate it to the nth degree without ever putting it to action. We all make mistakes, so that shouldn’t put you off trying new things. My first ever business – an e-commerce business called Tribal Monsoon – ended up failing, but I’ve never once regretted starting it. I believe my failure has made me a far more considered and seasoned decision maker. And business really is a collection of decisions, so this is a critical skill-set to develop. I recently brought someone into one of my businesses who was a five time failed entrepreneur. The way I see it, he has five stars on his CV.

My advice: If you’re a first time entrepreneur, start a scaled-down version of a business, trial it, and go through the start-up journey until you get to the point where you’re either going to scale it up or fail. You win either way. You’ll have an experience that helps you to get over your fear of failure or you make it at the first time of trying. The fear of failure can be practiced away.

Living your life like most people won’t
Simply starting a business is one thing, but going for the scale that’s required to create substantial personal wealth is an entirely different ball game. Entrepreneurs striving for scale have to work hard and make sacrifices – just like a champion tennis player. Most people aren’t prepared to live a life of extreme discipline or lack the patience to see it through. But that’s why the rich make up such a small proportion of the population. A lot of people look at my lifestyle and tell me that it’s extremely intense; my wife included. I wake up at five a.m. and I’m pretty much working until I go to bed at half past ten at night. I probably have one hour a day which I consider my personal time. Even on Sundays I’m working from lunchtime onwards. My lifestyle reminds me of the quote: “Entrepreneurship is living a few years of your life like most people won’t, so you can spend the rest of your life like most people cant.” – Warren G. Tracy’s student

My advice: You have to love what you do because work life and home life will become very much intertwined.

Final word
As someone that’s had the daunting experience of starting his own businesses, I’m often coaching founders to get over their fears and take the steps that are necessary. The only way to achieve scale is to be bolder and develop the ability to formulate a view and make sound commercial decisions, even if they don’t work out. As Felix Dennis says, debating is not going to eliminate the risks; all it’s going to do is clarify the next step. If you want to live your dream, you can’t let your insecurities and the unknown unknowns stop you. All successful entrepreneurs have one thing in common: like foxes, they use their survival instincts to navigate the murky forests of business where uncertainty thrives and surprises lay ahead at each corner. The good news for you is that your options aren’t as binary as the title of this article suggests: the ‘foxy’ life can be learned, but you must first have the appetite


Faisal Butt

Faisal Butt is Co-founder and Managing Director of Spire Ventures, a venture capital firm chaired by James Caan that invests in entrepreneurs with property related businesses. He is a former winner of Shell Livewire’s "Young Entrepreneur of the Year" and holds an MBA with Distinction from Oxford University

Faisal Butt is Co-founder and Managing Director of Spire Ventures, a venture capital firm chaired by James Caan that invests in entrepreneurs with property related businesses. He is a former winner of Shell Livewire’s "Young Entrepreneur of the Year" and holds an MBA with Distinction from Oxford University