What One Laptop Per Child lacks

Nick Negroponte and Walter Bender are teachers. They never had a chance. They are like the poor guy at Solano Beach the other day, focused on a distant goal, heedless of the danger below them. Great entrepreneurs, on the other hand, are the sharks.

Jaws movie poster image
An entrepreneur. (Read to the end for the story of this picture.)

Nicholas Negroponte is a brilliant man, a futurist of high rank, an idealist, and an all-around nice guy.

He is not an entrepreneur.

Neither, for that matter, is Walter Bender, the very worthy man who succeeded him as head of the MIT Media Lab and with whom he has now fallen out at One Laptop Per Child.

Successful companies of all types, whatever their industry, all have one thing in common. A single strong man (or woman) at the helm.

The attributes a founder or CEO brings to a company, both positive and negative, determine whether it will fly. There are many tools a great entrepreneur brings to this party, but the life of a college professor does not equip him (or her) for it.

Neither, I should add, does the life of a journalist. The great publishers, the men whose names adorn the fronts of our journalism schools, were not journalists themselves. They were entrepreneurs. Bill Ziff (the Z in ZDNet) was an entrepreneur.

I have known many fine entrepreneurs over the years. I have listed some of the atttributes the best had in common below:

  • Drive. An entrepreneur works harder than anyone else in the room.
  • Vision. An entrepreneur knows where their company is heading and how to get there.
  • Motivation skills. An entrepreneur knows how to lead people.
  • Ruthlessness. An entrepreneur can make hard choices. They can fire people.
  • Flexibility. An entrepreneur can make lemonade from melons.
  • Humility. An entrepreneur knows what they don't know and gets people who do.
  • Distance. An entrepreneur is not married to their business. They won't hesitate to sell or close it when necessary.

C. Tycho Howle, CEO of nuBridges
One of the greatest entrepreneurs I ever met was a man named C. Tycho Howle (left).

In 1984 he hired me to write the manual for a home shopping start-up he was planning. The launch was like the play Moose Murders. It failed practically before the press conference ended.

Tycho looked at what he had built with clear eyes. He saw an EDI engine he liked. That company became Harbinger EDI, which he sold to Peregrine in 1999 for a bloody fortune. He now runs another EDI outfit called nuBridges.

Tycho is nothing like Nick Negroponte. And vice versa.

Entrepreneurs are big heroes in our capitalist system. A lot of people pretend to be entrepreneurs when they're just businessmen or bureaucrats. A lot of us want to be entrepreneurs when we grow up.

But the role of entrepreneur is not something you aspire to, or grow up to. It is its own job description, just like reporter, actor, preacher, or teacher.

Nick Negroponte and Walter Bender are teachers. They never had a chance. They are like the poor guy at Solano Solana Beach the other day, focused on a distant goal, heedless of the danger below them.

Great entrepreneurs, on the other hand, are the sharks.