Type “entrepreneurship” into your favorite search engine and a popular – and unreferenced – definition is almost certain to pop-up:
“Entrepreneurship is living a few years of your life like most people won’t, so that you can spend the rest of your life like most people can’t.”
Did you catch that?
“…living a few years of your life like most people won’t…”
While there are hundreds of more academically-accepted definitions of entrepreneurship, this internet sourced description is most relevant I light of my entrepreneurial experiences.
Entrepreneurship isn’t easy. I don’t care what the latest business guru says about their “sure proof startup formula” – there’s nothing easy (or sure proof) about starting your own business.
Entrepreneurship involves risk and uncertainty – two things that make many people’s stomachs turn. What “should” work out rarely does, and what works often requires a lot more risk…ah, hem, “innovation”…than originally anticipated.
Depending on your startup’s scale, industry, and investment, the risk of striking out on your own can involve a lot of worst-case scenarios – bankruptcy, foreclosure, dissolved partnerships, severed networks, stress-induced ailments, just to name a few. Those potential outcomes often deter many aspiring treps from choosing the path less traveled.
Do you have what it takes?
In high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do.
I take that back; I wanted to open the “Hanna Banana”, a seasonal ice cream stand in the picturesque Shenandoah Valley. I’d “prepared”, as much as a then-sixteen year old could. I’d gotten a summer job at my would-be top competitor, I’d priced concession trailers, inventoried start-up equipment, learned to make frozen custard, subscribed to a variety of food industry catalogs, and interviewed several frozen treat entrepreneurs (aka: concession stand operators) on my family’s summer vacation. Forget college – I was going to be the Banana Split Queen – but there was one, not-so-little issue…lack of startup capital.
Feeling discouraged by my inability to secure investors (the commercial lending agent at the bank hung up on me), I reluctantly met with a guidance counselor, who promptly issued a “career assessment”. I don’t remember much about the questionnaire, besides thinking “what the heck does that question have to do with anything?”
A couple hundred multiple choice questions later, and the results were in.
My top three careers were:
- Bush pilot
I left that guidance counselors office more confused than ever.
Chances are you may have taken a similar personality-based occupation assessments in your day. For some, they’re quite enlightening, pointing them in the way of career options they are (supposedly) “suited” for. For others, like myself, they may be less enlightening, and simply more bullshit.
As a college professor teaching business and entrepreneurship courses, I’m often asked by students, “Do you think I have what it takes to be an entrepreneur?” While there’s a multitude of personality-based occupation assessments I could throw at these young minds some of which may even include “entrepreneurship” as an occupation option, my entrepreneurial experiences have shifted my thoughts on the nature vs. nurture entrepreneur debate. Currently, I’m not a big believer that entrepreneurial traits are solely personality based; instead, they appear to be developed.
What makes a good entrepreneur?
Entrepreneurs represent quite the diverse line-up of professionals.
My entrepreneurial colleagues and I have a variety of different personalities, as classified by the Big Five Personality Theory and Meyers-Briggs Personality Inventory. Some are introverts, others are extroverts. Some are perfectionistic, while others are more carefree. Some are creative geniuses, while others are operations whizzes. While we’re a rainbow of personalities, we’re all entrepreneurs – and our businesses are as different as we are.
But we do share some traits, they are just not solely personality based. In other words, it’s a little more nurture, a little less nature (sorry, Darwin).
Here are five develop-able traits that are readily observed within the modern entrepreneur:
Remember how we said what “should” work out in entrepreneurship rarely does?
Despite best-made plans, businesses – especially startups – tend to have a mind of their own:
- That “perfect product” you bet the farm on may totally bomb.
- Your strategically placed promotions may be completely lost on your target market.
- The “dream team” that’s supposed to sell your brand may turn out to be the poster children for Horrible Employees (or they may not even show up at all).
Enter: Entrepreneur adaptability.
As the owner of a business, when things don’t work out, you do.
Successful entrepreneurs listen to the market’s (lack of) response, operation breakdowns, and all the other “not working out” business events and they adapt. They create a new product, they try a different advertising campaign, they recruit new team members.
When things don’t work out like they’d hoped, they do not fall in love with their original idea, throw a pity party for one, blame it all on others, and throw in the towel.
Entrepreneurs are a curious bunch – they’re that persona at the conference, networking event, trade show, and zoo animal feeding demonstration. You know the type – the one with the thousand questions, the complete child-like wonderment as new inventions, and the zoo attendee that’s climbing the barricade to touch the giraffe (okay…that may not be generally observed).
While many of today’s well-known entrepreneurs are exactly academics – some are even noted for dropping out of college, like Michael Dell (Dell Founder), Bill Gates (Microsoft Founder), and Evan Williams (Twitter co-founder) – they are lifelong learners of another type, the ever-curious explorers.
As an entrepreneur, you must be constantly learning as business is always evolving. Whether it’s learning to use the latest social app (Snapchat, anyone?), or keeping up with industry regulations, entrepreneurs must be open-minded about new business strategies and resources. Why? Because your competition is sure to be.
Passion is probably one of the most distinguishable traits of successful entrepreneurs. Whether they are selling something super cool – like the hottest thing in tech – or something super ordinary – like toilet paper – entrepreneurs care about their offerings, even if (and when) no one else does.
We’ve all had that not-so-passionate work experience. Maybe it was working the post-holiday Customer Service counter at a big box store or stocking snack cake shelves at 3 AM on Saturday morning. Whatever it was, I’m certain you can distinctly recall that “impassioned” feel. It’s icky – like a cold, limp handshake – and leaves you constantly wondering if there’s “more”.
Within our modern culture, there’s a misconception that being “passionate” about your work means loving every aspect of it, all the time. Such unrealistic expectations simply are not true. No one likes 100% of their business; something just sucks, like that client that won’t pay, filing taxes, and filling in for absentee employees on a holiday.
Being passionate about your business doesn’t mean liking it all the time – it’s simply something that fills you with excitement and you can see a future. For some, this stems from representing innovative products, for others, it may spring from improving customers’ lives thru their service.
Possessing the ability to move on following unexpected setback is considered by some to be the personal attribute most correlated with success. In the words of Virgin Founder, Richard Branson: “Few first ventures work out. It is how a beginning entrepreneur deals with failure that sets that person apart. In fact, failure is one of the secrets to success, since some of the best ideas arise from the ashes of a shuttered business.”
Rising from the ashes – of a failed product, failed launch, failed business – is what distinguishes resilient entrepreneurs from those that are not. Understanding that your failures do not define you, flopped ventures can provide immense growth, and business fails can be regarding as the stepping stones to success are key for aspiring entrepreneurs to grasp if their entrepreneurial aspirations are going to make it past the first round.
Anyone blazing their own trail – especially in business – is going to experience failure. It’s just part of the experience. Starting your own business under the illusion that failure won’t happen to you, is like walking onto the football field as a lineman expecting to never be tackled. It’s all part of the “game”.
Failures are going to happen, and you know what? Here’s the kicker: it’s going to be okay.
Steve Jobs, Apple co-founder, epitomizes the word “visionary. His entrepreneurial vision turned an underfunded, garage-band-like startup into an international empire we now know as Apple. Letting the opportunities granted through his vision guide his professional journey, Jobs turned his dream – a dream many others could not see – into a very real reality.
While there are many inspirational quotes from the godfather of modern entrepreneurship, this bit of wisdom from Jobs hands over my office workspace: ”If you are working on something exciting that you really care about, you don’t have to be pushed. The vision pulls you.”
Like Jobs, entrepreneurs have to see what everyone else doesn’t; they have to possess a vision about the future and what it could be for their brand or organization. While today, their company may simply be an Etsy shop with 100 sales and a few hundred social media followers, a visionary entrepreneur will hold onto what could be – even if they are the only ones that can see it.
While these traits are certainly not all the tools you need in your entrepreneurial toolbox, they help provide the foundation for which a successful business venture can be built.
Successfully running a business requires traits that may be different than those characterizing a five-star employee; instead of simply fulfilling the responsibilities outlined in a job description and navigating well-established office politics, an entrepreneur must chart the organizational course. They can’t simply rely on the 9-to-5 structure of “running it up the chain”, as they are at the top of the chain of command.
Entrepreneurs, especially those in the startup phase, are the beginning and the end of their operation. Everything starts and finishes with them. There’s no passing the buck, employing the “above my paygrade” excuse, or calling in sick. As a business owner, you can’t even simply turn in your pink slip – you’re legally liable for the entity you’re built, even when you want to light a Molotov cocktail, turn your back on the flames, and file an insurance claim. Notice I said “when”, not “if”.
Entrepreneurship isn’t easy, but building something from nothing, experiencing the pride of owning your own business, and taking control of your professional journey is freaking awesome. After years of experiencing both wins and losses of entrepreneurship, I believe anyone can become a successful entrepreneur.
Instead of asking the question “Do I have what it takes to start a business?” the better question is “Am I willing to develop the entrepreneurial traits required for running a business?”