You Really Can Be An Entrepreneur, You Just Don’t Know It Yet

July 29, 2015

Good news:  Anyone can learn to start a business.  The process, starting with a business plan, is well defined so it’s easy to check off this box.  Helping people learn this process is what Startup Quest®, and other entrepreneurship programs, are all about…

I’m always astonished when I hear someone say they’d love to start a business but they don’t think they have what it takes.

The entrepreneurship course I teach to undergraduates in management at Saint Leo University is a required course, so I expect that not all of my students will initially be interested.  But I also hear it when I mentor our local Startup Quest® program, from participants who competed for a slot!

So let’s figure out what makes a good entrepreneur and see whether you might have what it takes.  I bet that a lot of you will change your mind from no way to maybe or even yes.

Broadly speaking, there are two fundamental prerequisites for being a successful entrepreneur:

  1. Knowledge of the “best practice” mechanics of starting a business, and
  2. The personal characteristics of an entrepreneur, such as personality traits.

Did you just say to yourself, “that list is missing ‘A good business idea’?”  That’s a common mistake.  It’s putting the cart before the horse — there are lots of good business ideas out there to choose from, but we need to tackle the fundamentals about you first.

Good news:  Anyone can learn to start a business.  The process, starting with a business plan, is very well defined so it’s easy to check off this box.  Helping people learn this process is what programs like Startup Quest® and courses in entrepreneurship are all about. (Stay tuned for subsequent blog posts where I’ll cover the process of creating a business plan.)

That leaves us with the personal characteristics of an entrepreneur.

When people think about great entrepreneurs, names like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg come to mind.  The problem with looking at them as examples is that the size of their success is one in a billion, and it’s tough to cut through the media hype.  Much better examples are all around you, namely the small business owners in your community.  What characteristics do these people share?

First, they’re hard working.  But wait a minute — if you’ve ever had a “real” job where you put in 60+ hours a week, including extra time at the office plus evenings and weekends at home answering email, writing reports, crunching numbers, and thinking about work problems, you’re already used to working long hours like an entrepreneur.  So check off this box.  (And wouldn’t you rather work hard for yourself than for someone else?)

Conversely, if you’re an 8-to-5 clock-watcher, starting a small business is not for you.

By the way, the downside to working long hours is the strain it can put on marital and family relationships.  If you’ve already been working long hours at a regular job, ask yourself: Were you able to balance work-life enough for your family to handle it?  Some people can, some can’t.

Second, successful entrepreneurs tend to be (and need to be) naturally optimistic and upbeat, and indeed passionate.  It’s what keeps them going, and it’s infectious to their employees.  This is both easier and harder as an entrepreneur:  It’s easier to be upbeat because most entrepreneurs become one to do something they passionately love.  But it can be harder to be optimistic when you’re worried whether your business will succeed.  This doesn’t mean that entrepreneurs have to be unrealistically optimistic because …

Third, contrary to common wisdom, entrepreneurs don’t take big risks.  As I mentioned above, one of the prerequisites to starting a successful business is creating a business plan.  The primary purpose of a business plan is to methodically determine whether your business idea has a good chance of success.  If you can validate that in a well-researched business plan, you can instead focus on daily execution of your business plan rather than stressing over whether long-term success is even possible.  So while entrepreneurs don’t need a high tolerance for risk, they do need to be able to handle the stress of lots of near-term uncertainties.

Those are, in my opinion, the big three personal characteristics of successful entrepreneurs.

In addition, here are some secondary things that you need to be prepared for as an entrepreneur:

  • Schmooze: Willing to be a networker.  That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be extroverted, but if you are an introvert you need to be willing to move out of your comfort zone.  Which is entirely doable.  Believe me — I’m an introvert too who has learned to network.
  • Accept delayed gratification:  The road to success is long.  Really long.
  • Always learning: : The ability and willingness to learn about any topic, especially business concepts and processes.
  • Focus on the business: The willingness to focus on business issues rather than the science or technology of your product.  If you have a tech startup, you’ll have to quickly shift to managing the business while delegating technology to employees.
  • Be financially stable: You need the ability to forego a paycheck for a couple years. It’s useful to be single, or have a spouse who makes enough to support the family (like me), or be independently wealthy.  Some people do start businesses while still working full or part time, but it depends on your situation.

One last thought:  Most entrepreneurs do it because they like the lifestyle.  Of course they would love to strike it rich, but that’s not their primary motivation for being a business owner.  They start businesses because they love it and can’t envision themselves doing anything else.  If you just want to get rich without enjoying being an entrepreneur, save yourself the grief.

So what have we learned?  To be a successful entrepreneur you need to be willing to work hard, be passionate, schmooze, learn about business, and maybe skip a salary for a year or two.  None of that takes super powers.  What it really takes is overcoming fear of the unknown, and we can clear that up by creating a business plan.

Based on your new understanding, do you have what it takes to be an entrepreneur?

I bet you just hadn’t known it yet!

I’d love to hear from you if you have questions or suggestions for topics. Contact me at david@nessl.name

David Nessl is a Startup Quest® mentor, adjunct professor of business, experienced consultant, and former CTO for the University of Florida Department of Pathology.
Copyright 2015 David R Nessl