When people discuss entrepreneurship, they often focus on process steps such as idea generation, opportunity validation, planning, company formation, and company growth. However, this analysis usually overlooks all the activities a person engages in to prepare for a successful entrepreneurship experience. These activities include education, work experience and something I consider supremely important: play.
What is play? A dictionary definition of is: “activity engaged in for enjoyment or recreation, rather than a serious or practical purpose.” If you examine the bios of most entrepreneurs, especially those engaged in technical fields, you will find few who didn’t play in their chosen technology field long before they engaged in a business venture. Technical play deepens experience and knowledge without the pressure of finances and deadlines. It allows the would-be entrepreneur to develop a strong affinity for her field prior to the start of any formal business practice. In this sense, play can be considered “step zero” of the entrepreneurial process.
Consider Bill Gates, the now legendary co-founder of Microsoft. It is well known that Gates started programming computers in grade school, purely for enjoyment and to satisfy his technical curiosity. Consider Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs who, long before getting rich at Apple, played with “blue boxes” that allowed them to make free long-distance telephone calls, and with computer boards they could show off to their friends at the Homebrew Computer Club. Consider me: long before I thought of starting my own electronics company, I was building robots and listening devices and ham radio stuff in the basement of our Flint, Michigan home.
When I was in college at University of Michigan, I spent most of my spare time designing and building a digital electronic music synthesizer. Microcomputers and digital signal processing devices were new then, and I felt excited to apply those technologies to the field of music. I also thought I might one day start a business manufacturing and selling synthesizers. As it turned out, my music synthesizer idea never became a business, because I had not engaged in the marketing or team development or financing necessary to make it happen. As it turned out, I was just playing. However, the years of effort did ultimately pay off. The business I later started, Telecom Analysis Systems, used many of the same technologies I had developed for my music synthesizer, and the experience I gained on that project made me much more familiar and comfortable with those technologies.
The importance of play should come as no surprise, and that importance is not exclusive to business pursuits. We would consider it an anomaly if a professional athlete hadn’t started playing as a kid, purely for love of the game. Ditto for a professional musician. Why should an entrepreneur be different? Love of “the game” and nearly lifelong experience are, I think, strong predictors of success in most fields.
The notion of technical play was a strong feature of the environment at Bell Laboratories, the legendary company responsible for many of the most important twentieth century innovations in electronics, computing, telecommunications, and computer science. Bell Labs researcher Claude Shannon, widely regarded as the father of modern communication theory, famously also spent many hours concocting devices such as an electromechanical mouse that could find its way through a maze (http://techchannel.att.com/play-video.cfm/2010/3/16/In-Their-Own-Words-Claude-Shannon-Demonstrates-Machine-Learning). Long before his Bell Labs career, as a child in Petosky, Michigan, he constructed a telegraph system between his house and a friend’s. Clearly Shannon had long enjoyed playing with computing and communication technologies.
Bell Labs was my first employer after college, and the environment there gave me time and space to work (and play) with the technologies I would later apply in my own business venture. Later, when my cofounders and I had to make hiring decisions for our own business, we looked for people who, aside from being “book smart,” demonstrated that they had enjoyed playing in their chosen field.
Malcolm Gladwell famously posits in his book “Outliers” that world-class expertise in any field requires 10,000 hours of relevant experience. Given this, it is no wonder that Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook) was writing computer software while in middle school, or that a young Magic Johnson spent countless hours shooting baskets in a Lansing, Michigan park, or that Oprah Winfrey was delivering local television news while still in high school.
So what does this emphasis on play mean? For the aspiring tech entrepreneur, it means that your chances of success are greater if you have enjoyed “playing” in your field for a long time. This is a variation on the old saw: “Do what you know.” Your familiarity with the technology and deep expertise will separate you from the pack and prepare you to deal with the inevitable onslaught of competition, and your love of the game will inspire and motivate others. For the parent who wants to prepare a child for entrepreneurship, it means giving that child the opportunity to create and innovate as early as possible. When you observe your child developing love for a particular field, encourage and nurture that love. The successful tech entrepreneurs of tomorrow are the kids who are today exercising their creativity by engaging in technical play: designing things; writing software; organizing “kid businesses.” When you observe your child exhibiting these behaviors, definitely support and encourage them. You may be helping them complete “step zero” on the path to a successful career in entrepreneurship.