Do They Believe?

Each generation, a few magnetic personalities emerge and generate a mania of public interest. Before Elvis, there was Sinatra. Before Sinatra, there was Bing. Before Bing, there was Caruso and before Caruso, there was Blondin.

Jean Francois Gravelot, who wisely abandoned his given name and dubbed himself The Great Blondin, was a true rock star of the 19th Century. On June 30, 1859, at the height of his fame, he stood before a crowd of 100,000 people at Niagara Falls.

We Believe Blondin, We Believe

The Great Blondin began his Niagara Falls show by crossing the Falls on a tightrope three inches in diameter. Although the tightrope spanned 1,100-foot and was 160 feet above the raging waters, the trek was fairly pedestrian for a man of his skills. Always the showman, he nonetheless choreographed a few wobbles and slips in his initial crossing in order to heighten the drama.

He then addressed the crowd, asking them if they believed he could cross the Falls blindfolded. The crowd predictably cheered, "Yes, we believe, we believe, we believe!"

Much to their delight, Blondin donned a blindfold and made a roundtrip across the tightrope.

He then asked the crowd, "Do you believe I can cross pushing a wheelbarrow?" Again the crowd riotously chanted, "We believe, we believe, we believe!"

Blondin successfully crossed the Falls pushing a wheelbarrow, which was no easy feat, even for one so great. Anyone who has ever pushed a wheelbarrow over solid ground knows how difficult it is to propel the wheel in a straight line.

Blondin then whipped the crowed into a frenzy before shouting, “Do you believe that I can cross pushing a man in the wheelbarrow?” Again the crowd hysterically shouted back, “We believe, we believe, we believe!"

Blondin smiled broadly and shouted back to the cheering throng, “It is great that you believe in me. Now who wants to get in the wheelbarrow?"


Talk about a buzz kill.

No one in the entire crowd of 100,000 revelers, which had moments before shouted, “We believe, we believe” volunteered to join Blondin on his trip across the rope. Did they really believe?

Of course not.

You will meet Blondin’s crowd over and over as you plan and execute your adVenture. Friends, family and disinterested parties will emphatically tell you, “We believe!” whenever you tell them about your wacky entrepreneurial plans. With friends and family, this sort of superficial support is to be expected. However, when it comes to building a team of stakeholders, you cannot rely on such lip service.

When a potential stakeholder, such as a future employee, investor or supplier tells you that they believe, pull a Blondin. Make them prove their belief in you by getting on your back as you step onto the proverbial entrepreneurial tightrope.

One way for a supplier or strategic partner to prove their belief is to accept equity in lieu of cash. With early employees, you may ask them to prove their belief by basing a significant portion of their compensation on their attainment of concrete results. You might even ask them to defer receipt of a portion of their cash compensation until your adVenture attains certain milestones, such as closing a suitable round of funding.

If the stakeholder really believes in you, your team, and the prospects of your adVenture, they will be willing to get on your back and trust that both of you will make it to the other side unscathed.

Entrepreneurial leaders must instill an absolute belief in their adVenture among all their stakeholders. The Blondin Test is a great way to assess whether or not someone truly believes, and thus whether or not you can count on them to lend you meaningful support when the tightrope starts to shimmy and shake.

Not Falling Is The Goal

As noted in “Be The Beatles”, instilling a common shared worldview and vision is an effective way to galvanize your team and ensure that they will consistently put the company’s best interest ahead of their own self interests. The goal is to get your company over the tightrope. As such, meaningful contributions, including one department’s support of another department’s success, should be rewarded and publicly acknowledged.

Catch people doing things right and reinforce that helping their compatriots succeed is in their self interest. If your corporate culture encourages and rewards such collaborative behavior, your team will realize that the company’s best interest and their self interests are one in the same.

Consider the importance of a healthy corporate culture in which cooperation is encouraged, acknowledged and rewarded as you read the following parable.

The Long Spoons

There was once a world traveler who came across a group of gaunt, famished individuals who were skulking around a steamy pot full of a hearty stew. The traveler was initially confused as to why they were so undernourished, as the stew smelled enticing and appeared very appetizing.

He then noticed that each person held a very long spoon. The spoons were so long that it was not possible for them to hold them and bring the stew to their mouths without spilling the stew on the ground. He also noticed that each person was angry and antagonistic to their fellow famished stew watchers.

Feeling rather awkward, the traveler continued on his journey. After traveling a fair distance, he came across a similar pot of steaming, flavorful smelling stew. The people surrounding the pot were all well fed, happy and very cordial to each other.

At first, the traveler was confused, as this group all held spoons of the exact same design and length as the first group.

Exercise: Stop. Think about why one group was famished and disgruntled while the other group was well fed and content. The answer appears later in this entry.

Blondin Revisited

What happened after Blondin silenced the crowd by challenging their belief? Did a drunken fool stumble from the throngs and take Blondin up on his offer of a free ride over the Falls?

No such fool, drunk or otherwise, emerged from the crowd. Instead, Blondin's manager, Harry Colcord, climbed aboard Blondin’s back and the two of them successfully made the journey without a mishap.

blond2.jpgWhy did Colcord make the perilous trip on Blondin’s back? Clearly it was not a contractual obligation nor is it likely that he had an insatiable desire to see Niagara Falls from such a precarious vantage point.

Colcord climbed onto Blondin’s back because he really did believe. However, this was not a case of blind faith. Colcord was confident in Blondin’s capabilities because he was privy to Blodin’s rigorous practice regime in which he had flawlessly executed similar tightrope escapades. Through his actions, not his words, Blondin had earned Colcord’s trust.

Keep this important distinction in mind when you deploy the Blondin Test. If someone jumps on your back without knowing your capabilities, then they will likely just be dead weight as you make your journey. You owe all the stakeholders in your adVenture proof that their belief is justified. Blind faith is not what you are seeking. Informed faith, based upon mutual respect, is a much more solid foundation upon which to establish your stakeholder relationships.

Long Spoons Mystery Solved

Did you think of the reason why one team was famished and the other was well fed, even though they had the same food and the same spoons?

The difference between the groups was how the members interacted with each other. The second group fed each other with the spoons. By doing so, they not only ensured that everyone received proper nourishment, they also developed a healthy feeling of dependency and camaraderie derived from working together to overcome an adversity.

Foster a culture that encourages team members to feed each other. Your adVenture is too busy to deal with internal squabbles between your team members. Thus, initially punish and eventually extricate any member of your team who undermines the culture of feeding each other.

Yes – I stole this parable from the best selling book of all time (no, not Harry Potter Vol. V…). My apologies to those who are familiar with the original version, which I significantly butchered in order to make it fit within the business paradigm.

A team that builds each other up, much like the Beatles did during their hey day, will not only have a much more enjoyable journey, it is likely that the pot at the end of the rainbow will be larger because the team’s collective energy will be focused on growing shareholder wealth, as opposed to scheming against their compatriots.

Deploy the Blondin Test judiciously. Only ask those who should be on your back to make the journey with you. In most instances, Donors (as described Your Personal Pitch) can help your adVenture succeed without jumping on your back and taking on significant risks. However, there will be times when the only way you can truly know if a stakeholder is fully committed to your adVenture’s success is whether or not they are willing to make the long, difficult and risky tightrope walk with you. In such cases, do not hesitate to ask them to get on your back and prove their belief in you.

We look forward to hearing about any entrepreneurial Blondins that you have encountered in your past. Please share what encouraged you to get on their backs and whether or not you made it to the other side of the rope.

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John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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