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Entrepreneurial Profiling

Fred Wilson has a post up today on whether entrepreneurship is a learned, or inherent, trait. Fred argues it’s an inherent trait, then lists the characteristics he’s seen. There’s great commentary on the post, as always. Including this really good, smart comment from Bijan Sabet.

I’ve had the good fortune to have been around and worked with some good entrepreneurs these past 15+ years, and I’ve been on my own startup adventure these past 4 years. Overall, I’ve come to the conclusion there are very few iron-clad rules about startups, or the kinds of people best suited to create them.

But there is one overriding, critical quality, though, that I’ve observed: to be an entrepreneur, you have to have an incredibly strong will. Or as Fred says, you need “a stubborn belief in one’s self.”

Startups don’t just happen — they are willed into being.  Sometimes by just one person, more often than not by a couple of people.

You get told no a lot. An entrepreneur has to be strong-willed enough to plow through an unending series of rejections — from prospective funders, employees, even from people who use their products. Even if you achieve a certain level of success with your startup, you’ll encounter skepticism, doubt, a lack of confidence in you and your idea. Some people might think you’re crazy, or foolish, or misguided. These people might even include members of your own family (a great topic of conversation among any group of startup founders). And if the startup fails, and you’re the founder, there is no escaping the blame.

A lot of people just don’t have this in their DNA — and I’m not sure it can be taught by any professor at any university or business school. I suspect there many complex personal and psychological drivers at work here, some of them perhaps pathological.

I know a lot of extremely talented people who have gone on to become successful executives at big companies who would make horrible entrepreneurs because they lack this critical sense of will. (In fact, I’d say this is true of almost all the people I know who have become executives at established companies). They’re all confident, talented, smart, analytical — but they’re missing that key ingredient, that need to do your own thing.

I think the main reason so many executives can’t be entrepreneurs is that they don’t want to look like they’ve failed. You see it in their online resumes at LinkedIn — the glowing summary of job after job, success after success. You see it in how they spend their time — often at conferences, basking in the glow of and admiration from their peers. The always upward executive knows and hones this key skill —  always claim credit, never accept blame. Many have spent their life chasing good grades, getting into the right schools, working hard to earn the respect of their friends, family, and peers. Failure is not an option.

I met a really interesting professor at the Stanford D School this winter at a dinner, and he said that when they look for candidates they try to find people who tinker, invent, and design “because they can’t help themselves.”

I think that’s as good a description of “will” that I can come up with.  People become entrepreneurs because they can’t help themselves. They have to do their own thing; to prove themselves, to put their ass on the line, to create something for which they know they can claim credit.  Those people come in all shapes and sizes and genders and ethnicities, and come from a wide array of backgrounds. Some are confident and brash, others humble and shy. But if they’re missing that — that sense of will, that need to do something and the willingness to look like an idiot, even, if necessary in pursuit of a goal — it’s impossible they’ll be able to make it as an entrepreneur.

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