Whether I’m out on the speaking circuit, working with startups, back in Ann Arbor teaching MBAs, or just socializing in a coffee shop, I’d say there’s one question I’m hit with more than any other.
It comes in different forms, but the essence of the question is the same: “What does it take to be a successful entrepreneur?”
Over the years, my answer has evolved. But I’ve found myself settling on 10 traits that are shared in common by virtually every truly successful entrepreneur I’ve met, observed or studied. The true rock stars are all:
You need to be driven by a clear sense of purpose and passion. Typically, that passion comes from one of two sources: the topic of the business, or the game of business-building itself.
Why do you need passion? Simply because you’re likely to be working too hard, for too long, for too little pay with no guarantee that it’ll work out… so you need to be motivated by something intrinsic and not money-related.
If you’re going to build a startup, you’ll need a spirit of determination coupled with a high pain tolerance. You’ll need to be willing and able to learn from your mistakes – to get knocked down repeatedly, get up, dust yourself off, and move forward with renewed motivation.
People will constantly tell you your baby’s ugly, that your business won’t work. Now, you should listen carefully and be open to constructive criticism. But after a while, having the door slammed in your face repeatedly can be withering, and the best entrepreneurs learn to feed off the negativity and actually gain strength from it.
You need a strong sense of self. You can’t be threatened by being surrounded by talented, driven people. To truly succeed, you’ll need the self-confidence to surround yourself with people “who don’t look like you”… that is, people with skills, background and domain knowledge that complement your own. And check your ego at the door: you shouldn’t be too proud to make coffee for the team, empty the waste baskets, or do the bank runs.
You’ll need to develop a comfort-level with uncertainly and ambiguity. Entrepreneurs gather as much information as they can in a short period of time, and then MOVE, MOVE, MOVE!! The attitude is that it’s not going to be perfect… We only have 9% or so of the data from which to base our decision… but if we wait to have all the information, we’ll never get moving… and be mired in indecision. (Big organisations are really good at this – the mired thing – saying, We don’t have enough information, so let’s continue to study… form a committee or a task force)
On the sliding scale from “risk-averse” to “risk-seeking,” it shouldn’t surprise anyone that entrepreneurs tend to be closer to the latter. But you don’t need to be a nut-case, the sort who bungee-jumps without a helmet. Smart entrepreneurs develop an intuitive ability to sniff out and mitigate startup business risk. But you know you’re going to fall down, and feel comfortable with that fact and that you’re going to learn from your failures and adjust as you go.
6. Financially Prepared
You’ll need the right personal financial profile to make the leap. This doesn’t mean that only the rich can be entrepreneurs. But unless and until you’ve got the personal financial ‘runway’ (ability to go without a steady paycheck and subsidized benefits) of at least 18 to 24 months (ideally longer), you might hold off on quitting your day job.
Consider launching the startup as a side-business if that’s possible, while continuing to work the 8-to-5 shift to cover the bills. Or approach your boss about going part-time. Then, once your business generating cash flow, you can dial back on your hours, or submit your resignation and go full-time with your startup.
I challenge you to find an entrepreneur running a startup four or more years old where that business doesn’t differ dramatically from the vision sketched out in their original business plan. The point is that the folks who stay on their feet are the ones who stay flexible and adjust to new information and changing circumstances.
8. Zoom Lens-Equipped
Can you ‘pan out’ to see a compelling big vision for your business, then ‘zoom in’ and focus on near-term startup goals? Successful entrepreneurs can facilely move back and forth between these two views. They’re able to articulate the big picture, while simultaneously managing and executing to the ‘zoom-in’ picture.
9. Able to Sell
Whether you’re a born extrovert or introvert, as a founder/CEO, you’ll find yourself always selling. You’ll be selling your vision to prospective partners and funding sources. You’ll be selling prospective recruits on why they should quit their day jobs and join this startup they’ve never heard of. You’ll be selling your products and services (yes, you’ll probably be personally closing at least the first few sales). You’ll be selling your employees on why they should remain calm and stay with the ship when the seas inevitably get rough.
You can’t delegate evangelism.
You may not start out with a fool-proof gyroscope, but to survive as an entrepreneur, you’ll need that strong sense of perspective. How to maintain simple, clear focus. How to be at peace with, and learn from, a failure. Understanding that not all battles are worth winning, and when to walk away. Knowing that most in your startup aren’t as entrepreneurial as you – that this may be a very cool job for them, but it’s still a job. Knowing when to go home and give your loved ones a hug. When to go for a run.
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