The Legend of the Lone Entrepreneur

The lone entrepreneur, fighting battles with a world that doesn’t understand, is a popular one (and some nurture it as part of their personal image). But in most cases, it’s an undeserving myth. Great entrepreneurs deploy their vision, but they also deploy a great team too. In this article, Mike shows you how to do it.

“Hi-yo Silver!” The stallion rears scarily up on its hind legs – but the masked rider stays cool, and regains control of the beast before galloping off into the sunset. Another wrong righted; another week in the life of the Lone Ranger.

One popular misconception about entrepreneurs is that they have to take a leaf out of this guy’s book, and become solitary – or almost solitary – seekers of their goals. Isn’t this what enterprise is all about? ‘Going it alone’? It certainly feels that way the day you begin trading, or when you get that letter from the bank: yes, you can have the loan, but the security is your house…

But that is not a feeling that can or should last. In the long run, the Lone Entrepreneur is very unlikely to succeed. Great businesses are created by great teams of people, not by lone individuals.

Some entrepreneurs reply: “But only I provide the drive, the focus, the vision!” Undoubtedly, but these things on their own are useless, unless they can be imparted to other people who’ll help turn them into a functioning business. We meet a lot of talented and energetic individuals with excellent-sounding ideas who are still trying to realize these ideas – on their own. We tell them they will fail unless they can build and sustain a team around them. This doesn’t always go down hugely well, but we have to say it.

Many more entrepreneurs have understood their need to create teams, but are not clear exactly what individuals they need or how to get hold of them.

We reckon that the ideal number for a founding team is five. The entrepreneur plus four ‘cornerstones’. Imagine your business as a pyramid, with the entrepreneur at the apex. The cornerstones hold up the base. Cornerstones share the entrepreneur’s desire for high risk and high rewards, but at the same time ground him or her via their particular commercial (finance or sales) or technical discipline. Incidentally, teams nearly always need two technical experts, one to imagine new products and create prototypes, the other to see these prototypes through to effective mass production.

Note that the entrepreneur may well cover one of these bases (the danger is that they believe, mistakenly, that they can cover all four!). We still think they should balance the numbers with a fifth person, preferably someone who comes from their own discipline, or maybe someone with huge admin experience.

You do not need this great team full-time from Day One. The best ideas are normally hatched by two or three people (usually an entrepreneur plus a friend or two) – the nucleus of the team. Other skills can be bought in as required. For example, Mike’s first company, The Instruction Set, began with the entrepreneur plus the sales and innovation cornerstones. The delivery cornerstone was part-time for a while (also lecturing at a university): the finance cornerstone was the last to join, only giving up a lucrative job at Goldman Sachs when he knew the company was going places.

We meet many partially-formed enterprise teams, and the problems they bring us almost always relate to having a weak or non-existent cornerstone. Books get ‘done’ by a local accountant, and there’s nobody worrying every day about costs; there’s nobody who really understands the minutiae of delivery; there’s a person who’s ‘done a bit of marketing’ in charge of (but not actually closing any) sales.

OK, so you’re a cornerstone short – imagine that pyramid again, but with one of its supports missing. How do you sort this?

Outsourcing is one answer, but that is only a short-term fix (unless the person outsourced to you later joins you). You need the voices of sales, finance, delivery and innovation shouting loud and clear – and often uncomfortably – at all your board meetings.

The best solution is to look to your own networks. Chris knew an aspiring journalist at university who kept files on fellow-students he thought would be useful contacts later in life: entrepreneurially minded people should do the same with potential cornerstones. Networking is a key entrepreneurial skill – another blow to the ‘Lone Entrepreneur’ model.

If you think you are cornerstone material and are looking for a small business to get involved in, what should you do? Network too. Via us at, if you like: we have started a formal network for bringing entrepreneurs and cornerstones together.

Or try an advert. Finance cornerstone, non-smoker, mid 30’s (i.e. 39) seeks entrepreneur for long term relationship. Good sense of humour essential.

The ability to build and sustain a team is a crucial, and often much understated, component of business success. It is understated possibly because too many entrepreneurs like to claim they did it all themselves. Don’t believe such claims. Even the Lone Ranger needed Tonto – the perfect delivery cornerstone – and that trusty old chap at the silver mine to keep the whole operation cash-positive.


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