Bank Robber Or ATM Operator – Which Are You?

Note: This is Part IV in the Startup Team Building series. Read Part I HERE, Part II HERE and Part III HERE.

Bank RobberyA Fortune 500 CEO once told me that I was a Bank Robber. Initially, I was offended. However, once he explained what he meant, I was flattered.

Entrepreneurs are law-abiding Bank Robbers. They enjoy the hours spent plotting and scheming and pulling together a team of skilled specialists to accomplish the heist. The outcome might be jail time (i.e., failure and bankruptcy), or it might be a haul so big that they never have to rob another bank. It is not the actual amount of money in the vault that motivates them. Rather, a bank robber is inspired by the seemingly unlimited challenges associated with each bank job.

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Even though the time spent planning the robbery is fraught with risk, uncertainty, and more than a bit of anxiety, it is highly preferable to be a startup Bank Robber, as opposed to spending your life waiting in line at an automatic teller machine (ATM).

In partnership with Docstoc, I created the following video, in which I discuss when it makes sense to hire Bank Robbers versus ATM Operators.  You can watch the embedded video below or at YouTube:

The amount of money in the vault is ultimately not the Bank Robber’s primary driving force, as Mark Cuban confirms in THIS collection of startup advice. The expectation that the next heist could be the big one is often the most exciting aspect of the robbery. Risk is seldom a dissuading factor as entrepreneurial Bank Robbers typically assume that they will always make a clean escape.

ATMAn ATM Operator sees life very differently. They take comfort in knowing that every two weeks they can wait in line at an automatic teller machine (ATM) and extract a prescribed amount of money. It is never more or less than what they expect. Every year, as a reward for their patience, the amount they can withdraw might increase slightly.

When recruiting the initial employees into your adVenture, you must weed out the ATM Operators from the Bank Robbers. As described in Ignore Entrepreneurs’ Resumes, Bank Robbers often have unimpressive, disjointed careers. This requires you to identify clues as to who they are, rather than reviewing a list of what they have done, as described in Hands-on Techniques For Hiring Entrepreneurs.

Spotting Bank Robbers Without Ski Masks

A Bank Robber will ask questions that are focused on your products, customers, and the potential size of your adVenture’s overall opportunity. They will want to know about the banks you plan to hit, and how much money might be up for grabs. Conversely, the ATM Operator will ask questions centered on the company’s financial condition, current investors, and potential future investors. They will seek an understanding of the amount of money that is currently in the ATM, who is going to refill it, and how often will this be done.

Entrepreneurs will revel in the small size of your startup. The more bootleg and funky your office space, the better. The fewer people participating in the heist, the more significant they will view their role. They will appreciate that the less hands there are in the till when the loot is distributed, the bigger the share for everyone involved. ATM Operators will eye your office space suspiciously and ask questions such as, “When do you plan to relocate?” and “Does the company’s insurance include a vision plan?” During Amazon’s early days, Jeff Bezos encouraged employees to make desks out of old doors as a symbol of the company’s frugal culture. Such “door desks” might have scared away Wantrepreneurs, but they certainly did nothing to limit Amazon’s success.

Bank Robbers will focus on the role they can play to ensure the team’s success. They will excitedly ask to drive the getaway car or be the gunman. Conversely, ATM Operators will maintain a reserved countenance and ask about your benefit plans and whether or you match 401k contributions. Their intent is to determine what they can get out of the job, other than the requisite biweekly ATM withdrawal.

Bank Robbers want to be assured that the venture is risky, because they know the size of the potential upside is usually correlated with the underlying risk. A high-security bank usually holds more cash than a small savings and loan with a circa 1970’s security system. ATM Operators want to know what you will do to mitigate their personal risk, and they may ask for severance packages, acceleration of their vesting, etc. If something goes wrong, they want to know that they can run to the front of the line and empty the ATM before moving onto their next job.

Entrepreneurial Bank Robbers crave the thrill of the heist. They love planning the robbery and experiencing the adrenaline rush associated with taking down a bank. They delight in the role of the underdog, persevering with the odds stacked against them. Thus, when you are hiring your initial adVenture employees, be sure to determine if their preference is a ski mask or pantyhose. However, as noted in Mark Zuckerberg Goes Both Ways, as you company matures, shift your focus to hiring ATM Operators who value the security and stability of a growing, self-sustaining enterprise.

Once you sell your adVenture and split up the take from the heist, you and fellow Bank Robbers can leave the company in the hands of the ATM Operators, head to Vegas and blow the loot. If the adVenture was sufficiently rewarding, your bank robbing crew will likely Get The Band Back Together and begin planning which bank to take down next.

Note: This is Part IV in the Startup Team Building series. Read Part I HERE, Part II HERE, and Part III HERE.

ATM Photo from WordPress

John Greathouse

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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  • Paulanz

    Surely you’re not implying that entrepreneurial types are all dishonest and steal from others?! And corporate types are ATM machines, dispensing assets to the people they belong to? The Bank Robber analogy completely glosses over the wealth creation (not stealing) that happens when it all goes right for startups. There must be a better name for enterpreneurs than robbers.

    May I suggest:
    Landscaper vs. gardener
    Author vs. editor

    Entrepreneurs create something out of very little, they innovate, they break the status quo and rebuild it…Mature companies make incremental improvements, fine tune, drive scale and efficiencies, polish and increase yields…I’m sure mine won’t hold up fully either, but at least they don’t imply dishonesty.

    I have a lot of integrity. I don’t believe our company is stealing from anyone or luring folks in; we offer a product which other companies are free to buy if it is valuable to them…or not.  It is a voluntary exchange, and if we succeed we’ll have helped increase the amount of weatlh in the world an infintesimal amount, by providig more value with the resources we brought together than was there before.   Stone soup style, but without dishonesty.

  • John Greathouse

    or Farmer vs Hunter… 😉

    I am not suggesting that entrepreneurs be dishonest. In fact, I have written a fair amount on the importance of honesty. The negative aspects of ‘bank robbing’ is what offended me when the CEO used the term to characterize me. 

    Sorry, maybe I should have been more clear on this point. Honesty absolutely matters. 

  • TJ

    Bank robber vs. ATM operator is perfect.  Farmers have just as many risks as hunters and are closer to bank robbers with planning crop strategies, trading futures, etc.  Hunters don’t have to file BK if they fail, they just hunt again tomorrow.

    Very interesting to look at the similarities in planning, motivation and need to outsmart the big fat corporations filled with risk-averse ATM operators.  It’s on in the Octagon!

  • B_stein

     The analogy is likely to sail over the head of most people, who will read negative connotations into it and over look the important point-  **It’s about mindset.** 

    Theft and dishonesty have nothing at all to do with the term “Bank Robber” in that sense.

  • John Greathouse

    Agreed! I am using Bank Robber in a very euphemistic way – state of mind is a good way to state it. I have written a great deal about the importance of honesty to success in business, including here:

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