I’ve been thinking a lot recently about whether entrepreneurs are born or if they are made over time. I enjoy working with entrepreneurs; I love their spirit, drive, and persistence, even when the odds are stacked against them. The perennial question will likely be debated for many years to come, but here are five qualities that I believe make a successful entrepreneur/business founder:
1. They don’t do it for the status.
A restaurant client of mine opened a new restaurant a few years ago and invited friends and family to the soft opening. You would think that this would be a great time for the operator to celebrate his success and meet with the people attending the event, right? He was one of the first people I saw walking up to the restaurant because he was in the parking lot picking up trash. I’ve changed this story a bit to protect the identity of my client – but the essence is true – this successful entrepreneur was picking up garbage to ensure customers had a great first experience.
If an entrepreneur is doing it for the status, they will not do the dirty work, put in the long hours, or have the push that is required to have a chance at success. Entrepreneurs understand they must do everything in their company – even pick up trash during the launch.
2. They can rely upon and follow their own instinct.
There are many different stats on the failure rate of startups – but the often cited percentage is that 90% fail. Also, only 25% of small businesses will employ more than just the founder. Entrepreneurs are confident in their own decisions and have the fortitude to be held accountable for their decisions. It is a difficult lifestyle (often not discussed, but getting more attention recently) that can be very lonely. In the likely event that the startup fails, the entrepreneur must be comfortable with the contacts, friends and family members who will criticize the entrepreneur’s attempt as being foolish. But if the company succeeds, these same critics will be the first ones who would say that they always knew the entrepreneur “had it in them.” Entrepreneurs don’t internalize the shame or the accolades, and they continue on following their own instincts.
3. They select great teams to rely upon.
Entrepreneurs have a great EQ and cultivate the people around them and on their team. At first, when the company cannot afford other employees and executives, it is critical that they have friends and family that they can trust to receive honest feedback. As the company grows, these positions are filled with other executives selected by the entrepreneur. As Gary Vaynerchuk points out, “The higher you climb and the more the business grows, the stakes become a lot bigger. More and more people are depending on you to make the right decisions for them and the company. The league you’re playing in and the skill set required jumps from pickup ball to NBA very quickly.” It is critical that the entrepreneur has skilled teammates.
4. They are comfortable with uncertainty.
One trait that I believe is essential for an entrepreneurs is the ability to be comfortable with uncertainty. It may even extend beyond uncertainty, to include the ability to be comfortable with risk. A lot of people who claim they are a start-up founder say they like the risk, but let’s face it, once there is a major setback or the company fails, most people go get another job.
5. They are realistic, but don’t let the status quo set their reality.
Yes, there are many obstacles facing the entrepreneur, and yes, no one has done this before, but the entrepreneur sees potential opportunities where others have not. This takes a very refined skill of understanding reality, while also being opportunistic, just enough to see something that others have not seen before. For Bill Gates and Paul Allen, this was the insight that PC’s would become a fixture in every business and house, when the companies that dominated the field, such as IBM, were certain that mainframe computers were the future. For Jeff Bezos, it was the insight that he could take an on-line book sales company to become a company that could sell everything to everyone.
Are these qualities in a person’s DNA or are they learned over time? I believe it is a bit of both – some natural tendencies in combination with hard work that can ultimately lead to a successful business.