What It Really Takes to Be a Successful Entrepreneur

  • By Jen Dziura
  • April 26, 2016

You’ve probably heard that entrepreneurs are supposed to be a certain way: passionate, sales-happy “disrupters,” and the image in pop culture points to a select group of young male engineers in hoodies. Surely there's more to it. Here, we cut through the buzzwords to figure out what you really need in order to successfully run a business.


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Passion
Virtually every article on how to start a business cites passion as a must-have factor for success.

Passion can be one great motivator. But let’s say you decide to run a laundry-related startup (there are quite a few of those right now) — you don't necessarily need a passion for cleaning clothes in order for your business to be successful. A passion for startups, or just for making money, or for fast-paced deal-making, may be enough.

When I ran my first company in the 2000s, an internet marketing firm, clients would often say, "You must really love computers." I would tell them, “No. If soybean futures were the hot thing, I'd do that. The internet is just what's happening right now.” Call it passion if you want, but I just like to be on top of trends.

Willingness to Fail
“Successful entrepreneurs are risk takers who have all gotten over one very significant hurdle: They’re not afraid of failure,” wrote Jason Bowser for the Minority Business Development Agency, and many other startup experts agree.

True, true — to a point. It all depends on what you mean by “failure.”

Decades ago nearly all business models required significant capital investment, because before the internet you needed substantial physical space for nearly any business. Today, if you’re risk averse, then you have the option to run a business with little capital investment, with people working remotely, services provided online, goods drop-shipped, and so on. Build websites that sell goods that are shipped directly to customers by their manufacturers, or sell those goods on sites like Amazon and eBay. Create online classes to offer via a company like Udemy. Sell information on Gumroad or Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing. The commonality here is that these are businesses where you incur real costs only when you sell something, not before.

Sure, you could fail — but we’re not talking about going bankrupt and losing your house. There are many business models whose worst-case scenario is that you’ll be out a few hundred bucks and your time. And that time will actually be time well spent, since you’ll have learned valuable lessons for your next attempt. Not so scary.

Ability to Sell
Many experts cite being able to sell as a prerequisite for being a successful business owner. If you can’t explain your product persuasively, then who can?

I think this one’s right on point.

It's great if you like to invent cocktail mixers or design group fitness programs or develop software. But most creative people have the same problem — too much creating and not enough selling. Or worse, they have a total aversion to selling. But if you want to turn a creative product into a real business, you need, in my experience, about 10 percent creation and 90 percent marketing. Once when you have an established market, then you can push the ratio more toward creating.

Fortunately, pitching, marketing, and selling are all skills that you can learn. They're not inborn, and they're not just for “suits.” Get started by attending pitch nights at entrepreneurship groups, joining a public speaking group like Toastmasters, and making a point of talking to your potential customers and figuring out their pain points.

Rule Breaking and Disruption
Thomas Smale in Entrepreneur insists that people who start their own businesses “exist to defy conventional wisdom.” He goes on to cite a study that associates them with “rebellious behavior, such as pot smoking.”

Sometimes entrepreneurs do break the rules, and it works. Airbnb and Uber, for instance, have both functioned largely by bending the rules and then aggressively lobbying to get them changed. But that's not the only way.

Plenty of businesses just give people what they want, when they want it, in a delightful way. Look at most of the things you spend money on every day — what you're eating and drinking and putting on your face and storing your files on and wearing and enjoying. Most of those things aren't “disruptive.” They're just pretty great, right?

Entrepreneurs come in all molds. The two most important things in starting a business is that someone wants to pay you for something, and that you can scale it. Everything else is window dressing.

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