In my work with teaching entrepreneurship -- showing people how to think and act like an entrepreneur -- I’ve been asked countless times about what I think is the most important ingredient in entrepreneurial success. Most often I say that the entrepreneurial mindset is the most important and I believe it is.
It’s the clear answer to me because the mindset is the collection of attitudes and skills that sets entrepreneurs apart from others -- things such as opportunity recognition, persistence, collaboration and future orientation. While you can be a great success without these abilities and without the mindset, learning it and deploying it will absolutely increase the odds of your eventual success. The mindset may not be indispensable to success, but it’s far and away the most important factor.
There are other things that play large roles, naturally. Factors such as access to capital, mentorship, maturity and even luck impact whether any specific entrepreneur "makes it."
And as much as I’ve spoken about and focused on the mindset and what makes an entrepreneur, I don’t think I’ve ever been asked what I think is the least important part of being a successful entrepreneur. I simply haven’t spent much time thinking, “If I could, what one thing would I leave out and still have the best chance that someone would be a winning entrepreneur?”
But I did read, this post by MIT Sloan School Senior Lecturer Bill Aulet, “The most overrated thing in entrepreneurship.” His conclusion -- the idea is the most overrated thing in entrepreneurship.
To many entrepreneurs, that may seem surprising, even shocking because we glamorize the “ah ha,” light bulb moment of epiphany and because so many entrepreneurs worry obsessively about someone stealing their zillion dollar idea. Even so, I think Aulet is on to something about the idea being overvalued and over-hyped when it comes to entrepreneurship. Moreover, I think the entrepreneurship mindset reinforces his view.
Two parts of the mindset that we teach and repeat and repeat again for good measure are persistence and adaptation. Persistence, some call it grit, is pretty straight forward -- it’s the strength to not give up when things don’t go well. And while we often teach it and tend to think of it terms of sticking by your idea even when it gets rejected or others don’t see your vision, we also stress that grit involves staying in the game when your ideas don’t work out as you thought they should.
In fact, when we teach entrepreneurship, we directly tell student to expect to fail. We try to prepare them for the near certainty that their first, and even second and third, attempts won’t be overnight sensations. In doing so, we’re indirectly telling students would-be entrepreneurs that it’s the process of entrepreneurship that they should not abandon -- not so much their specific ideas.
Which brings in the second part of the mindset that supports Aulet’s premise -- flexibility or iteration. The ability for successful entrepreneurs to be successful – some may say the reason they are successful -- is the ability to accept feedback and change. In entrepreneurship lingo, we now call it a pivot.
As Aulet and others correctly point out and as I’ve seen myself countless times, a great many entrepreneurs eventually succeed with something that is quite different from their original inspiration. They may start out doing one thing but collect information about their product or the market or their competitors and shift. And since that’s the case, it really does underscore that maybe -- just maybe -- the original idea was not the most valuable factor in the entrepreneurship equation.
I’d never go as far as to say an entrepreneurial idea is irrelevant. World-changing ideas can and do happen and they can trigger outlandish entrepreneurial success. And, whatever your idea, it’s also important that you believe in it passionately -- that passion should be your motivation to keep working and inspire others.
So while you absolutely need an idea, even if it’s an idea is to do something someone is already doing, you’ll need much more than a good idea to succeed. And since you may end up tossing it aside or changing it anyway, it’s not best to wait on the perfect idea either. To the contrary, you can get started -- and be a wildly successful entrepreneur -- without that single, bolt of lightning idea.