Allan Branch: Entrepreneurs Are Authors Writing Their Own Story
Allan’s parents were entrepreneurs, although it would never have occurred to him to call them that. They were in the service business, including restaurants and car washes. As a kid, Allan would help around the car wash, everything from washing down cars to emptying the trash to accounting. He internalized the idea that entrepreneurship was always doing two jobs, such as running one car wash while getting another ready for opening. The “two jobs” metaphor stayed with him.
Around the dinner table, the family would talk about how the businesses were going. It wasn’t so much a lesson in entrepreneurship as immersion in a lifestyle.Entrepreneurship can be the source of a sense of control over one’s destiny.
Following this childhood immersion, Allan quickly realized his felt need to control his own destiny. Being an employee would not achieve that goal. He did not want to await permission to try new pathways. He studied design in college and took on clients for design work, and quickly found out that he had a taste for business. He found out that print design work was not profitable and in declining demand as design shifted to the web. From web design, he migrated to internet software design and production. He calls this pathway “slowly adapting to what I find interesting”, which has been his story for 20 years.Allan applied his “two jobs” mentality to launching a SaaS accounting software business.
Allan developed a software design and consulting firm, which generated cash flow. He and his business partner poured the cash into developing a superior SaaS accounting software. They worked on it on nights and weekends — doing two jobs. He describes juggling the clients and leads and sales and payroll of the consulting company with the development of a new business with different customers, leads, sales and payroll. The “two jobs” mindset is typical for entrepreneurs as they grow and ideate and innovate.Agility is a more effective and productive pathway than planning.
Allan tells us that he never had an official roadmap or business plan for the SaaS software company, with known milestones a year or two years or more in the future. Entrepreneurial management lies more in knowing how to be nimble, how to move fast, how to make decisions quickly. The hardest part is knowing what features to work on, when to work on them and how long to work on them.Orchestration is the entrepreneur’s organizational skill.
To be an entrepreneur, and to build a business around you, it is necessary to attract talent, motivate talent and keep talent. It’s like being a conductor in an orchestra. You may not be the best violin player, but you know what another great violin player sounds like. You know how to assemble a team of players and blend them in a harmonious way.
And the attitude of the employees is as important, if not more important than the talent. Churn in employees is typically a business killer. It’s important to be able to recognize both talent and the right attitude. Allan ascribes success to transparent and continuous communication about the company’s mission and values — these will attract the right talented people.The journey is strewn with mistakes all the way to its successful conclusion.
Allan built and steadily grew his SaaS software company over a ten year period and then sold it. His analogy is that of the duck that looks like it is gliding smoothly over the water, while kicking like crazy underneath the surface. Self-doubt along the way is normal. Errors and mistakes that require correction are normal. For entrepreneurs, it’s important to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.Entrepreneurs are in the human reaction business. The measurement of success is making people smile.
All businesses are human reaction businesses. The goal is to make an emotional bond with the customer: they enjoy the experience you make possible for them, whether it is managing their own accounting using your software over a long period of time, or whether it is finding out about one new feature that they discover and find works well for them. Entrepreneurs strive for those moments of understanding. Making people smile is the metaphor — but in software, it’s hard to see them smile, so it’s necessary to find the right KPI’s that will be a proxy for smiling. Empathy is the skill of being able to feel when invisible customers are smiling.Allan advanced into real estate and other ventures — but sees it all as storytelling.
After selling his SaaS business, Allan continued in software design and consulting for clients. He also involved himself in real estate, including a brewery in his home town. The brewery is a platform for telling the stories that make up the history of the town. And it is storytelling that Allan makes the overall metaphor of the entrepreneurial life. You are writing the story that your grandkids will tell about you in the future. What is the story you want to write? What is the story you want to tell about your business to attract and engage customers? The great brands and great businesses tell great stories. Entrepreneurship is a story told about life.Additional Resources
"Allan Branch's Entrepreneurial Journey" (PDF): Mises.org/E4E_86_PDF1
Hunter Hastings mentioned effectuation theory in his prologue to the conversation with Allan Branch. For those interested to learn more, refer to the useful definitional academic paper by Saras D. Sarasvathy, "Causation and Effectuation: Toward a Theoretical Shift from Economic Inevitability to Entrepreneurial Contingency" (PDF): Mises.org/E4E_86_PDF2