Avi Freedman | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Avi Freedman

Background:  

Kentik Technologies, based in San Francisco, is a data platform for digital operators, that helps sites run their infrastructure and gives analytics to ensure performance and security of applications and services. 

 

The Mistake:

I started the first Internet service provider in Philadelphia in the 1990s. There was no way to buy consumer internet access, so I started a company to do that.

When I ran an ISP in my 20s, I thought no one could do anything as well as I could. I thought, “They’re doing it wrong. That’s not the way I’d do it.” I’d send an email (to people at the company).

I enjoy focusing on the technology. I have strong opinions about how to run things, but it wasn’t the right thing for the business.

For five years, I was very aware of everything that went on.

A couple of the people at the company came to me. They said, "There’s a limit on how big we can get, if you insist on being involved in everything. You need to give us the tools and tell us what we need to get done. And you can object if you think there’s a company-ending event."

I’m embarrassed to say it, but initially I thought, “If you do what I say, I won’t have to spend so much time.”

In any given instance, where I wanted things to be done a certain way, I was right. But it doesn’t matter that I was right. I can’t run a whole business like that because you can’t do everything.

There were many things that we wound up doing that weren’t the ways that I did.

If you want to get people who save you time, no one on the planet will do everything exactly the way you would do it. You can’t do everything yourself.

You have to give people the freedom to be wrong—let people be 20 percent wrong.

The Lesson:

I suddenly had 20 to 25 hours a week to focus on growing the business instead of geeking out about the best way to run computers. The fact that people chose to do things differently didn’t affect the business at all.

The framework I wish I could provide myself back when I was working in the ISP is, you have to give people the freedom to be wrong—let people be 20 percent wrong.

If you’re going to build a great company, you need to have great contributors and leaders. The only way to have an environment to have people to work for you is to give them the space to be wrong.

So in a lot of companies, there aren’t those freedoms. Sometimes, it’s even within groups, there isn’t the kind of freedom. I think that really hurts a company that tries to scale.

You have this passion and clear vision of the way things should be. If you’re ever looking for people to do exactly what you say, you’re not going to get great people. You’re going to be stuck and unable to scale and get really large.

Follow Avi Freedman at @avifreedman