Most of the technologists I know inherently believe that the terms inventor and entrepreneur mean the same thing, so they are frustrated and surprised when they build their products and no business evolves. They don’t understand that most great entrepreneurs, including Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, had a partner with complementary skills on the business or technical side.
In fact, I challenge anyone to name a famous inventor in recent times who also built a successful business without one or more partners on the business side. Building a business today is far more challenging than it was back when Thomas Edison alone built a business empire from his thousand inventions. Now we have online information overload, more government regulations and easy worldwide access to alternatives.
The term entrepreneur has always been defined as a person who builds a new business, which may or may not involve inventing a product. Sometimes great new businesses, such as Starbucks, are built on the oldest of base products, but with better customer service, distribution, marketing or a new pricing model, by a smart, determined entrepreneur such as Howard Schultz.
If you are an inventor looking to attract the next Howard Schultz as a partner on the business side, here are some defining entrepreneur characteristics that I suggest you look for in a partner:
1. A focus on building a business
Inventors focus on building a product, which investors often tag as a “solution looking for a problem.” A good entrepreneur starts with a problem that needs to be solved, including how many people have the problem, what people are willing to pay for a solution, how to make money and how to execute.
2. Shows passion and knows how to market
Even the best solutions these days need marketing and effective communication to get any attention and traction. An inventor’s attitude of “if we build it, they will come” is unlikely to lead to a successful business. The passion of a good entrepreneur is contagious to the team, investors and customers.
3. Thinks customer-centric vs. technology-centric
Finding and interacting with customers on requirements, value proposition, pricing and support must be an entrepreneur’s top priority. Understanding the relevant market segments and market trends is usually more important in building a business than technology trends.
4. Knows how to build and lead a team
Inventors are often lone scientists who don’t have the skills or interest to build a team around them. A team is often seen as a burden to an inventor, and may potentially dilute or steal ownership. Entrepreneurs know they need a team with many skills and enjoy the leadership role.
Inventors, on the other hand, also have some positive defining characteristics that every entrepreneur and business needs in a partnership, including the following:
1. Shows single-minded focus on a single idea
Too many entrepreneurs have multiple ideas, and are easily distracted by new market opportunities or trends. They need the perseverance and focus of an inventor to get to a solution, make sure it works reliably and really solves the problem. This requires a deep understanding of technology.
2. Follows a disciplined and methodical approach
Edison reportedly found a thousand light-bulb filaments that didn’t work, but he persevered in a rigid analysis and testing process until his invention materialized. Filing a patent and quality testing requires a level of documentation and a detail orientation that one rarely finds in an entrepreneur.
3. Brings realism to solution-development projections
Inventors hate budgets, required checkpoints and scheduled completion dates. They know you can’t schedule invention costs or the number of iterations required. As such, they bring some balance to the entrepreneur who wants everything done tomorrow, leading to a quick business exit.
4. Has an insatiable curiosity and an open mind
Successful inventors are always asking questions and seeking answers to technical problems, even when the solutions seem impossible. Thus they tend to build deep knowledge about a subject, and are able to keep an open mind on what may be the next solution or evolution of the technology.
As you might guess, the businesses that really change the world or deliver paradigm shifts embody a balance of both of these roles, and that balance is rarely found in a single person. The challenge for each of us is to take a hard look at our own strengths and weaknesses, and not be afraid to solicit and appreciate the strengths of a partner. Don’t let your ego get in the way.