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Turnarounds can be entrepreneurial too

When an entrepreneur gets that “spark” or vision in his/her mind about the company they want to go build,  it usually involves a start-up idea.  But it seems to me that successful business turnarounds, whether led by the original entrepreneur or someone that is brought in for the task, involve much of the same entrepreneurial traits that are necessary for a start-up to be successful.

Maybe that’s why I’ve always loved learning about great business turnarounds; it’s that same “us against the world” feeling I get when I hear about entrepreneurial start-ups.  While turnarounds seem like they typically involve a bit more raw courage and leadership than do start-ups, the courage and leadership in a turnaround still have to be combined with those same traits that drive successful start-ups:  passion, vision, drive, etc.

Two turnaround stories are on my mind tonight – both involving very different “businesses”, but both demonstrate how great turnarounds are entrepreneurial too.

The first turnaround story on my mind is the story of The Atlantic magazine.  David Bradley bought The Atlantic magazine in 1999 for $10 million, and proceeded to run it for years as a traditional magazine with no new strategy or vision – and he did this despite the internet media revolution happening all around him and his newly purchased  media venture.  As you would expect, the magazine proceeded to lose tens of millions of dollars over the next several years.  But then he hired three key new managers, editor James Bennet from The New York Times in 2006, Justin Smith from The Week in 2007, and Andrew Sullivan from Time.com.  Collectively they made the entrepreneurial declaration that the company needed to be run like a digital enterprise, embracing digital distribution, changing the way they organized their staff, and eliminating old-model costs.  They “imagined themselves as a venture-capital-backed start-up in Silicon Valley whose mission was to attack and disrupt The Atlantic. ”  It worked.  Now the magazine is profitable and flourishing in a mixed digital/print model.

It took a culture shift and an entrepreneurial declaration for the leaders of the The Atlantic to turnaround their business.  Driving a certain type of company culture is what many entrepreneurs are good at, and so it makes sense that leading a “culture shift” would be an important aspect of  being entrepreneurial in a business turnaround.  And so this leads me to the second turnaround story that’s on my mind…and it involves Vince Lombardi.  Yes, that Vince Lombardi.  Did you know that Vince Lombardi coached the Washington Redskins after he coached the Packers?  And that when Lombardi arrived in Washington to coach the Skins in 1969, he led them to their first winning season since in over 14 years.  All the stories of how Lombardi managed to turnaround his new team so quickly point back to how he instantly shifted the culture of the team, installed in them a vision and a belief of how they could win, and provided leadership, drive and passion.  Sound familiar?

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