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Curb your (infectious) enthusiasm

Thursday, 22 November 2012 | By Jason Rose

Countless books get written on the personalities of the great entrepreneurs. Everyone who reads them spends the next 24 hours pretending to be Steve Jobs or Richard Branson before slowly morphing back into their true selves.

 

Putting the value of self-help books masquerading as biographies to one side, a consistent trait that these kinds of books identify is that of enthusiasm.

 

The great entrepreneurs all seem to share electrifying enthusiasm. They have a grand vision that they hold with such enthusiasm that it not only drives them but also drives those around them to turn the seemingly impossible into a multi-billion-dollar IPO.

 

It’s hard to argue against the importance of enthusiasm. It helps propel entrepreneurs through lean times. It electrifies sales presentations and investor pitches in ways that defy logic. How often do you hear of people forgetting the detail of a meeting but remembering the presenter’s enthusiasm?

 

So, yes, enthusiasm is important, which makes things hard if you are a naturally demure. One bit of advice that I will give you is to not do the ‘enthusiasm’ thing if it’s not you: The only thing worse than a lack of enthusiasm is fake enthusiasm.

 

Something interesting that I have observed is that however common a trait like enthusiasm seems to be among successful entrepreneurs, its opposite is also important. In fact, there are times when it is often more important.

 

There is certainly a time to be passionately enthusiastic. It’s unlikely you are going to throw in your day job and start the process of setting up a business if the concept at the core of your start-up doesn’t leave you wildly enthusiastic.

 

But, equally, there are times when enthusiasm – running with your heart – is the exact wrong thing to do. There are times when you need to take a step back. Stop. And think.

 

Among the most significant advertising people of last century – the ‘B’ in DDB – was a man called Bill Bernbach. He pioneered creative advertising that recognised that ads and brands needed to have a personality and connect with customers as people, not as robotic consumers.

 

He would often end up in clients’ boardrooms with an advertising concept that he was passionate about. And he would fight with the client relentlessly to try and get them to let go of their conservative instincts and buy his more ‘creative’ concepts.

 

By all accounts the meetings would get heated and the account people would start worrying about the future of the business as voices were raised and tempers flared.

 

Legend has it that in his pocket, Bernbach kept a piece of paper that said, “Maybe he is right.”

 

Every now and then during the trench warfare of trying to get a concept over the line and as his enthusiasm for his ad reached a climax, Bernbach would reach into his pocket and read that missive and reconsider his course.

 

Sometimes he’d fight on and sometimes he’d fold and concede defeat. Sixty-three years after co-founding his agency, it still exists (in name, at least) and I would argue at least in part, that’s because its great founder knew when to unleash and when to rein in his enthusiasm.

 

The longer I think about start-ups, I feel that for every important trait, there needs to be an equal and opposite trait to balance things out. What message are you going to stick in your pocket?