Fountainhead is one of my all time top ten favorite books. The lead character, Howard Roark is an independent-minded architect who bucks conventional wisdom and delivers buildings with vision and verve in the face of criticism and doubt – in short, a true entrepreneur.
One of my favorite scenes is when his antagonist, Ellsworthy Toohey, an obsequious newspaper columnist, captures a private one-on-one moment with Roark and asks him: "Mr. Roark, we’re alone here. Why don’t you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us." Roark replies, “But I don’t think of you." The sentiment is simply delivered; no antagonism or emotion – Roark truly doesn’t even consider Toohey or other critics like him when embarking on his work.
As he embarks on his long-anticipated IPO road show, Groupon’s founder and CEO Andrew Mason will need to channel a bit of Howard Roark. Critics love to throw stones at the company, as they do for other high-flying start-ups. I admit, even I have my doubts about the daily deal model and how sustainable Groupon’s approach will be in the face of merchant and customer attrition over time. This week’s news that smaller daily deal rival, BuyWithMe, is retrenching and laying off half its staff is not a good omen.
Yet I really respect what Mason and the Groupon leadership have built and, in truth, I wish them well. I want more young companies to succeed, break through the IPO glass ceiling, and continue to prove out the venture capital-backed company-creation process can work. I want Groupon to settle in at a strong valuation that generates wealth and further fuels the Chicago entrepreneurial ecosystem while returning capital to liquidity-starved investors. And as a Boston-based venture capitalist and start-up cheerleader, I like that Groupon is proving that not all the good companies have to come out of Silicon Valley.
So why is it that so many people are so eager to tear the company down? I guess schadenfreude, that odd feeling of happiness humans feel when they see other people suffering, is not simply a German phenomenon. For whatever reason (too many type A competitive folks in one small Petri dish?), the start-up community is a very snarky one. VCs are famous for bragging about their portfolio companies and snidely putting down their rivals. I remember when I was an entrepreneur and my company, Upromise, was raising money, one VC heard I was talking to a famous partner at a rival firm and sniggered, “Really? Is he still in the business?”
Yet the best entrepreneurs (and VCs, I suppose) know to ignore the critics and naysayers. In fact, like Howard Roark, they don’t even think of them. They keep their head down and focus on building a great service that their customers love and creating a great culture that engenders loyalty and passion amongst their employees.
Good luck, Andrew.