I was slightly reluctant to write a piece about the common characteristics of excellent entrepreneurs. Despite having strong opinions on the matter, most times, for obvious reasons, these pieces do not include enough data points to support the conclusions that are made by the writer. However, I truly do believe that it’s important for budding entrepreneurs to understand what will be required of them to successfully start a business. And even for existing entrepreneurs, I hope this piece may provide some insight into the things that you want (and need) to focus on in leadership.
1. Great entrepreneurs blend vision with execution.
We tend to think of successful entrepreneurs as big-picture people and visionaries. This may be true, in some cases, but the best ones I’ve worked with can blend their “vision” with the ability to get things done. In fact, I’d even advise aspiring entrepreneurs to avoid spending too much time on developing business ideas. Most ideas are going to have to be heavily revised when you get out to market. Successful entrepreneurs are highly goal oriented, blending their big-picture strategy with a laser focus on execution and results.
2. They have an ability to find backdoors.
Good entrepreneurs tend to be skilled problem solvers and analytical, but they also approach problems in a creative fashion. The very good entrepreneurs that I have met are not trying to be eccentric or unconventional; they simply tend to think a little bit differently and creatively. Without question, there’s a “cult of the entrepreneur” in this country. Part of this involves assigning an almost mystic quality to individuals who start successful companies from scratch. I’m very reluctant to do this. Successful entrepreneurs are not sages or mystics. They are resourceful and creative folks who burrow a little bit further and try different angles than other people. They tend to be good at finding backdoors and keys to locks that other people don’t see.
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3. They’re willing to work the long hours.
Facebook went from an idea in a dorm room to a billion dollar company in a flash. That is the exception not the rule. The truth is that the task of building a successful business is a thankless and grueling one. The hours are intense. The rate of success is relatively low. It takes a long time to generate momentum. The amount of work involved is unfathomable for those who haven’t tried it yet. I don’t mean to trivialize the success of great American entrepreneurial stories like Facebook. But the story behind entrepreneurial success seldom resembles “The Social Network.” It’s probably closer to “All at Sea.”
4. They can either sell or build.
Good entrepreneurs tend to fall into one of two buckets: those who sell stuff or those who can build great products. Some of them, a rare breed, can do both. Companies live or die on the strength of their products and their ability to market and sell those products. To successfully lead a company, you have to be able to drive at least one of those pillars. Steve Jobs was a good communicator, but his skill lay in products. Even though Bill Gates had technical expertise, he was actually a sales and marketing specialist. Scott Cook at Intuit is a product entrepreneur. Donald Trump is a sales entrepreneur (among other things).
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5. They can reduce complicated data into something manageable and actionable.
Even extremely complex business problems usually reduce down to three or four important components. Good entrepreneurs are able to identify the few key factors that are important to a decision or a business. Shark Tank is an entertainment show, without question. But notice how the judges on the show (all of whom are successful entrepreneurs) really know what they are talking about. They rapidly get to the success or failure points of the business almost every time. Regardless of the industry or product, they can almost immediately home in on the two or three key points that the business’ success depends upon.
6. They are very effective with people.
As Americans, we tend to admire people who are out on the edge a little bit. At the risk of getting too philosophical, I think this goes back to the founding of our country by revolutionaries. We tend to admire people who represent fringe elements, even while we may criticize them. Entrepreneurs fall into this category. The popular media representations would make you believe that entrepreneurs are successful in spite of, or because of, their antisocial, “outlaw” tendencies. This results in an inaccurate portrayal of the entrepreneur as a loner or malcontent. Let’s briefly dissect this. Growing a business is a matter of getting people to work together; the probability of being able to build a business, without working well with others, is very, very low. This does not mean to say that good entrepreneurs, like the rest of us, do not have personal foibles, because they do. However, if you look a little bit more closely, it is obvious that the truly great entrepreneurs are very effective with people, or else they would not have achieved the same level of success.