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The Best Entrepreneur I Know (donpottinger.net)
312 points by strukturedkaos 1040 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 60 comments

There's a lot more to entrepreneurship than the weird little bubble of software startups. Entrepreneurs are just people who take a chance in order to make a real difference.

I grew up poor, and one of the hardest things about being poor is that there are so few role models for success. Except for teachers, I didn't know anyone educated. Except for the people my father worked for (and mostly hated), I didn't know anyone wealthy or successful. More of the grown men I knew were failures, criminals, and addicts than successes.

As a smart child in this environment, teachers and other authority figures expected intelligence to lead to obedience, and were frustrated that I didn't care that much about their rules, that I wasn't interested in being especially good at being mediocre. With a slightly different twist in the wind, I might well have wound up a criminal myself, although I like to think I'd have been a very good one.

Even when I left my hometown to go to college, it took me years to adjust to a "normal" life. And it took me years more to realize again what I knew instinctively as a child - that succeeding at mediocrity wasn't a worthwhile life.

The men and women who have made a point of being social entrepreneurs, of being role models in communities that desperately need them - they're better, braver, and tougher than most of the founders we fawn over here. And they'll make a more meaningful contribution to the world.

I wanted to be a cat burglar as a kid.

In all the studying, learning, planning and risk assessment I realized it's easier and less risky to just go to college. That and stealing isn't really something to aspire to in life.

Probably why I didn't stay in finance/accounting/banking. At least salesmen have to convince you of their lies, the money wonks just take it out of your account every month.

I still want to be a cat burglar. I don't really actually want to do the whole robbery thing, so much as plan it all and see if I could get away with it.

I'm glad computer games give me the chance to play at stuff to be honest, it's a great outlet.

> the money wonks just take it out of your account every month.

With a statement like that it sounds like you lack some important critical thinking skills. Try to provide concrete examples of things rather than echoing standard claptrap.

It's interesting to look at your comment, and look at the nasty comment that it provoked. This is the starting point of a cycle of nastiness.

You could've asked the person to elaborate or be specific, or even contradicted or questioned them- without saying "you lack <important skill>" and "try to <be useful> rather than <being unimportant>".

Why so mean? Was the meanness intentional, or...? Genuinely curious.

There's plenty of meanness in the GP as well, it's just a lot more subtle, so it's neither fair nor accurate to pin-point that comment as the starting point of a cycle.

"[F]inance/accounting/banking" is not one coherent blob of thieves or parasites or whatever labels otherwise apparently reasonable people get away with attaching to anything in the field. Of course it's not a divinely perfect field either (not that anyone is claiming that), of course it has big and important problems. But especially if you work in or near finance, it gets really annoying just how accepted and endorsed rampant prejudice is in the rest of society.

> It's interesting to look at your comment, and look at the nasty comment that it provoked. This is the starting point of a cycle of nastiness.

One helpful technique is to read what you've written out loud and consider whether it's something you'd say to someone's face.

Honestly, if you can't withstand a little (in this case, very mild) invective every once in a while, then you probably should avoid discussing politics on the internet - if not in real life - altogether. While I obviously don't agree with him at all, I don't think heuving's comment was inappropriate, even within the context of trying to have a rational debate. And, I would say the same of my own 'nasty' comment as well. You don't have to be courteous and dispassionate to the point of servility to talk about politics or any other topic - and in fact for many people that's quite boring anyway.

Really, grow a thicker skin.

It seems to me that you think I'm offended, or upset, or concerned about "appropriateness". I don't actually care for any of that!

Here were my thoughts:

1- We could have had an interesting discussion about finance

2- instead, it went "money wonks"-> "you lack critical skills" + "standard claptrap" -> "you lack some important read-a-newspaper-in-the-last-seven-years skills".

3- Back-and-forth snide, snarky attacks are far more boring (to me) than actually discussing points of contention, different points of view, so on.

4- I definitely appreciate that you took the trouble to link to the Emergency Economic Stablization Act, but it feels to me like the conversation had already soured before that.

5- I'm writing what I'm writing not so much because of this particular instance, but because mean comments in general tend to derail otherwise interesting or could've-been-interesting threads. Which feels wasteful to me. A mean comment has a souring effect that's IMHO not worth the short-term entertainment value.

Heuving's comment is clearly against HN guidelines and as such is downvoted by a few people.

I was an auditor at Arthur Andersen, how about you pay attention to the fucking world around you before you start spouting off like you've got something to contribute yourself, eh dipshit?

With a blanket and snarky dismissal like that it sounds like you lack some important read-a-newspaper-in-the-last-seven-years skills. Try to be more aware of your surroundings. This should get you started: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergency_Economic_Stabilizatio...

So it might surprise you to find out that it was a very small percentage of that industry that caused that. The fair housing act did more damage than any individual banker in that event as well.

I'm more interested in the damage they caused, than what percentage of the population they are. Murderers make up a small portion of the population as well, but we still punish them and take steps to prevent crime.

I've never heard a convincing argument about the Fair Housing Act - more than anything it reminds me of the 'spectre' of welfare queens riding around in limos that was a favorite of the right for many years. Although, I suppose if your claim is merely that it is more responsible than any individual banker, that might be plausible, if only because the contribution of any individual banker must necessarily be quite small (even if some of them did end up becoming famous for their role).

> Entrepreneurs are just people who take a chance in order to make a real difference.

I'd go so far as to say- entrepreneurs are just people who are trying to solve problems. I get annoyed when I hear people ask things like "How do I become an entrepreneur?" in an aspirational way, as though it's some sort of cool club where all the cool kids are hanging out.

An entrepreneur is just a person who's so bothered by a particular problem, who's so dissatisfied with the status quo that she decided to get her hands dirty and make a dent in it.

So now Karl Marx was an enterpreneur.

If you dig into the etymology and history of the word, I'd think yeah, absolutely.

> entrepreneur (n.) 1828, "manager or promoter of a theatrical production," reborrowing of French entrepreneur "one who undertakes or manages," agent noun from Old French entreprendre "undertake" (see enterprise). The word first crossed the Channel late 15c. (Middle English entreprenour) but did not stay. Meaning "business manager" is from 1852.

Wasn't him?

He created a missled and malign enterpreneuship, but he did create something.

Software startups also tend to be very product-oriented and focus on global markets. But the most successful people I know (I don't know any billionares) run service-oriented small businesses and are focused on changing the neighborhood.

Changing your own 'hood is the first step to changing the world. There's not enough being said about serving your neighbors and getting to know your regulars on a first name basis.

I feel that, in a way, I am changing my own 'hood. As an enterprise engineer, I'm trying to solve what I believe to be the most painful problem experienced by enterprise engineers - trying to figure out what caused complex systems to break down, so a fix can be formulated. This problem really sucks because it leads to a lot of yelling, finger-pointing, all-nighters, and general panic - bad social behavior that has nothing to do with the technical problem-solving we love.

So yeah, I feel I'm going after the problems of my peers, of my tribe. My 'hood, even if it's a virtual kind of 'hood.

I'm happy to see there's been a lot more discussion lately in Silicon Valley and entrepreneurial communities, in general, about the importance of role models who are people of color and women. This article only covers one side of that (not that it is less interesting or touching for not covering the other side)...the other side is that until white folks in our industry, or in other industries, are regularly seeing and interacting with people of color and women in leadership roles, we will likely continue to allow unintentional biases to affect our decisions and our workplaces, probably to the detriment of all (but mostly to the detriment of people of color and women).

There have been a number of studies showing the unintentional white supremacist thinking that even folks who think of themselves as progressive and anti-racist exhibit (and even people of color and women can fall prey to these same biases against their own race or gender). That perpetuates a cycle that can only be broken by visible disruption of the cycle. i.e. people who aren't historically in leadership roles, who aren't historically in tech roles, being empowered and successful in those roles.

Note that I'm not making governmental policy suggestions here. I'm making cultural and systemic observations. I don't know the solutions, really, but awareness and acknowledgment of the problem is certainly one of the early steps.

Anyway, I loved having a good barber shop. I haven't found a good one since moving back to Texas, but it really is a nice thing to have a regular barber who does a nice job, and knows and cares about his community. It's unfortunate that there are so few barbers left...they've been replaced by the chain haircutter places that hire people straight out of beauty school; those businesses are rarely worker-owned (they rent the chairs, or are part-time employees), and rarely have any significant ties to the community (though they are often franchises, possibly owned by someone in the same city or, at least, the same state).

There is a very straightforward way to mitigate the effect of biases. Make everything as algorithmic as possible and don't use biasing factors as inputs to the algorithms. This also fixes more biases than just the the ones with sympathetic victims - you'll hire both the woman and the ugly socially awkward guy with kickass github profiles.

Unintentional bias lives in the subjective and human parts of our procedures. The fewer decisions humans make, the less bias you see.

See also this blog post I wrote recently. Drivers I flag on the street explicitly and intentionally discriminate against me about 80% of the time. With Uber/Ola/Taxi4sure it's 0%. https://www.chrisstucchio.com/blog/2015/why_i_like_uber.html

Nobody disagrees with that. But 100 years of management research, and we're nowhere near an objective measure for what makes a good hire.

The objective measure for an Uber ride is orders of magnitude simpler: "is reasonably civilised, unlikely to soil the car or abuse the driver" and even then, their approach to deciding who fits, is to just try, then kick you off the system if you don't live up to the criteria.

We've got lots of great techniques that apply in specific cases. Work sample tests and intelligence tests (admittedly illegal in the US), for example - tokenadult has a long linkdump that backs this up. If I recall right, tptacek has also done this in practice and had it work excellently.

Further, even if you can only systematize part of the process, that still helps you debug. If women all get rejected on the (blind) coding test then you don't need to waste time looking for bias. If women get rejected at the culture fit interview then you might want to look for bias at that stage.

> Make everything as algorithmic as possible and don't use biasing factors as inputs to the algorithms

When you control for gender the gender pay gap disappears.

By which I mean deciding which factors are biasing factors and which are not is not clear cut.

Excellent points - raising awareness by sharing these type of experiences is part of the reason why I've finally begun to blog. It's important not only for people of color working in or aspiring to work in the tech industry, but also for the demographic that doesn't understand what it's like to be a black unicorn in a tech world. It raises the empathy levels of everyone involved.

> why I've finally begun to blog

I'm glad you did, and I'm looking forward to reading more!

It's important for people to have role models they can identify with. And role models are selected by those who are looking for them, not by the government.

Government can definitely play a role, however, in how many kids grow up to become role models. We could talk about the prison industrial complex and the rate at which it imprisons young black and brown folks, compared to white folks, even for crimes that are committed by white folks at the same rate or higher (like drug crimes; white folks do more drugs and serve less time for it than black folks). Felons don't often become leaders in the business world.

There are systemic changes that are needed to fix this problem. I didn't think it was particularly relevant to this article so I explicitly excluded it from my comment, but one cannot deny that government plays a huge role in all of this.

The problems of today are only due to the roles government was playing yesterday. The government only needs to do less and society will fix itself. The people are in prison only because of government in the first place. Felons are only restricted from working because of the government. The danger of saying it's the government's job is we as individuals begin to absolve ourselves of responsibility, because we start to think its someone else's problem.

> The government only needs to do less and society will fix itself.

And by "fix itself" you mean it will shift even more wealth from the lower 75% to the top 1% - who will step in to fill the power void.

"Money begets money, power begets power." Society is full of self-reinforcing feedback loops like that. You need a damping factor that prevents any single individual or corporation from amassing too much power.

Look above and you see the more rich and powerful stacked one after another, wealth and power increasing seemingly infinitely the higher you look.

Look below and you see the poor and powerless, stacked one after another, poverty and powerlessness infinitely desperate the lower you look.

Unless you're near the very top or the very bottom, at every level of this power ladder the view is the same.

"I recently asked a wealthy political donor why he was supporting Bill de Blasio and his attacks on the wealthy."

"Because inequality is a problem in New York," he said. "The rich have gotten their way for too long."


Compared to the poor in developing and undeveloped countries where people earn $5 a day, your wealth and power relative to them might as well be the same as the wealth and power from 0.1% percenter relative to you. Them looking at you would feel the same as you (assuming $100,000 income) looking at a CEO making $5 million a year.

The only question is, with your wealth and power, how will you diffuse your power to reduce the world's inequality? If you can solve this problem, you can show the example for your family and close friends. If your family and close friends can solve this problem, so can your community, your neighbourhood, the rest of your city and nation.

It's not a problem that can be solved by my "wealth and power" (both of which are in rather meager supply).

It's an issue of mentality. A society is what it is because its members share a set of assumptions, ideas, mentalities. The one-percenters get even more one-percent-y every year because we all hold certain "truths" to be "self-evident".

For starters, we need less individualism. I'm not saying less individual freedom, mind you.

> It's not a problem that can be solved by my "wealth and power" (both of which are in rather meager supply).

You have an observation shared with thousands of millionaires in NYC.

I'm helping my company setup a software development office in South Africa. It won't do much, but it'll provide half a dozen individuals with well paying jobs and diffuse some wealth we collect from Fortune 500 companies.

I'm also planning a trip to a developing country, paid for by that government, to deliver a class to local CS graduates there on how to become a contractors working with projects paying $50+ an hour. It won't do much but if I can help one or two individuals do this I'd be very happy. I was lucky when I traveled there for vacation, managed to talk to someone who works with the government's ministry of education.

I've only been working full time as a software engineer and formally graduated only last May and this is what I'm doing.

My wealth and power is likely more meagre than yours - but it is a lot less meagre than many others.

I hope one day you'll find your own way to help solve problems you see in this world, too.

> It's an issue of mentality.

I agree with you. See my reply to SwellJoe.

I'm an anarchist. You're preaching to the choir on that front. I think the police soft strike in NYC is the most fun thing in the world right now.

But, until the rest of the world is convinced that police are an outdated artifact of a dark age in human history and should be abolished, we have to reform the laws that inflict "justice" dramatically unevenly across races and classes.

I think, to improve the environment around us, what matters most is our mindset. If the way we think is best suited to the environment we aspire to live in, the environment will change. To reduce the people's dependence on the government, independence as a trait must be promoted. That means convincing people their lives are up to them, and not to wait for the government to do something. You know as well as I do the governments of 2015 are dysfunctional and power hungry enough they're not going to do anything of the sort you're hoping for, even if it earnestly tries, even ObamaCare as well as interference in Syria and Iraq was a mess.

To change the world, we first cultivate ourselves, and then our family, community, and radiate outwards, and finally the world will be changed.


When things are investigated, then true knowledge is achieved; when true knowledge is achieved, then the will becomes sincere; when the will is sincere, then the heart is set right (or then the mind sees right); when the heart is set right, then the personal life is cultivated; when the personal life is cultivated, then the family life is regulated; when the family life is regulated, then the national life is orderly; and when the national life is orderly, then there is peace in this world.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 54.

What is firmly established cannot be uprooted.

What is firmly grasped cannot slip away.

It will be honoured from generation to generation.

Cultivate Virtue in yourself,

And Virtue will be real.

Cultivate it in the family,

And Virtue will abound.

Cultivate it in the village,

And Virtue will grow.

Cultivate it in the nation,

And Virtue will be abundant.

Cultivate it in the universe,

And Virtue will be everywhere.

Therefore look at the body as body;

Look at the family as family;

Look at the village as village;

Look at the nation as nation;

Look at the universe as universe.

How do I know the universe is like this?

By looking!

Fantastic man, and barbershops have long played an important role in African-American communities.

But as to the comment about MLK, it would be a mistake to comprehend the civil rights movement as being embodied in entrepreneurialism.

This being a startup community of entrepreneurs, it is tempting for us to celebrate the power of individual free enterprise paired with social cause. And that is noble. But the civil rights movement stands for organized action to fight racism at a systemic level. It is the more conservative, privileged sector that focuses on "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" individual entrepreneurialism as the pathway to racial equality.

The civil rights movement is about organized mass action to address the racism and disadvantages inherent in white-dominated institutions and social relations. That is what MLK stood for: fixing white racism and structural inequality, not merely black role models and self-esteem.

Martin Luther King also demanded his followers to become better people to disprove the stupid-savage-criminal image they had. The Black Panthers also stood for fixing white racism and structural inequality.

It is this "become a better person" aspect of MLK, which Dennis embodies, imho.

Great article. Also brings up an aspect of the tech startup mentality that bothers me from time to time. From my reading of pg and ycombinator's focus on fast hockey stick like growth curves, it seems that you can easily dismiss/overlook small and steady businesses like Klippers which can perform very important roles in our lives.

I'm not criticizing pg and the ycombinator crowd, in fact I have much respect and admiration for what they're trying to achieve. But I think small businesses don't get the respect that they deserve.

It's actually pretty interesting that small/lifestyle businesses get a lot of respect on Hacker News (pinboard, improvely, Appointment reminder and their creators are all very well revered here). In fact, a lot more than the general population (from my point of view) have for those businesses.

It seems to me that the focus at HN is on startups that aim for huge growth, and not really small businesses; especially not small, stable businesses that don't have much potential to grow very large. The subject of the article is a small business that won't really scale well. One of the biggest topics of discussion at HN is around the topic of scaling a business.

I'm glad to see an article like this which reminds us that small businesses can be an important part of our society. I also see some efforts by some people in the ycombinator network to expand beyond the mechanics of doing startups. I attended last year's startup school and was blown away and inspired by one of the speakers, Danae Ringelmann: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPbHf4i6CrQ&list=PLQ-uHSnFig...

This is because a pretty large percentage of the readers of HN are pretty smart - they recognise that a good lifestyle business is what smart people should be building.

This is a really heart-warming and great read.

I think a lot of businesses tech and non-tech alike can take a page out of Dennis' book. You're not just running a business, for some, it can be a much more personal experience if you are willing to make the effort. As the author Don points out, he is willing to drive 30 minutes to not only see his mother, but also to get his haircut. You can't buy that kind of customer loyalty.

As with most things in life, sometimes just listening is all you need to do. Listen to your customers, make them feel important and valued. Surprisingly simple, but something most businesses fail to do.

Great article. Thank you for sharing your experience. I had to do the "I got something in my eye" move so those around me would not think I was crying :)

Thanks! This past weekend, I was able to tell Dennis how much he means to me, and I had to catch myself because I was beginning to choke up. It ended up being the inspiration behind this post.

there's an awesome lady at Stanford Hair (http://www.stanfordhair.com/) that simply blew my mind with her kindness. She took customer service to a whole new level. I've since moved from Palo Alto to SF and I've tried really hard to make my schedule work just so I can get a hair cut from her. I think I'm going to make that happen this weekend. I was a fresh PhD dropout living on $600/mo ~ 2 yrs ago, not quite where I want to be but things are much better now, I owe her a download of how things have gone :) OP thanks for the nudge.

This made me smile, but it would've been nice to read more about what he and Dennis actually talked about.

Thanks for reading! I would love to go into more detail about what we talked about, but it varies so much from session to session. I could write an entire book on our conversations.

A book on your conversations with him could be a fascinating read. Just sayin...

This is really nice idea.

I read the Article. Dennis seems like a nice guy- rather a great guy! But I do think that this article does not particularly embody a spirit of entrepreneurship. Dont get me wrong, Dennis does not embody any negaative spirit, everything positive. It is fitting for MLK day. However, just because it makes us feel warm and fuzzy, it shouldn't be characterized to embody any particular quality that we choose to say it does. It embodies great human spirit, but, rationally thinking, is not fitting example of entrepreneur.

I also read the article. I think it shows that Dennis is a great entrepreneur. He has been successfully running a business for 20 years and knows his customers and treats them as more than just a customer. This then creates loyalty, enough to cause the author to return there time after time, even when there are likely other barbershops closer.

Dennis has identified a problem that needed to be solved, has solved it and is doing it so well that his customers talk about him and keep returning.

How very Silicon Valley of you. If he had a "book a haircut" app, would you consider him an enterpreneur then?

No, I wouldn't consider that alone a great enterprise. It should be determined based on some objective and measurable criteria. Everybody who develops an app is not a great entrepreneur, and everybody who is nice alone is not a great entrepreneur

Dennis sounds like good guy. If I didn't quit buzzing my head, I'd be interested in going to him.

But to a greater point: entrepreneurship isn't just about the millions or billions we more often hear in the news. Instead, it's also about the small biz owners like Dennis who aspire for great things for their communities, their family and friends, and yes, themselves.

We should shoot for the stars, but not get disappointed because we only reached the moon. Or heck, if we were able to "fly" at all... that's awesome.

Great write-up! Now, can Dennis also have an app? I'd like to help with that.

It's 8.30 am here and the first thing I read today is this inspirational article. People like Mr. Dennis lead by example and that inspires others.

Next time when you visit him, just pass on my Hug!!

Beautifully written, thanks for sharing.

This reminds me of this movie: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0108560/ (Who's the Man?)

A 1993 classic with a lot of known Hip Hop artists, the main characters basically help a well-known and very helpful barber in the community by joining the police and taking care of the community. Quite funny and entertaining.

Beats a new way to share cats online for me. If you want to see what 'change the world' means look no further than this.

Love the article. It was not the typical post I read on HN, but fitting on several levels. Thanks for sharing!

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

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