Launching a new business venture is the sort of thing just about anyone can do. In most states, all it takes is a few minutes of filling in a bit of information on a website, paying a small fee with a credit card, and in no time at all a new firm is formed. Of course, launching a successful new business venture is a different story. Most of us learn at a pretty young age that all it takes to start a wildly successful new business is a sufficient amount of this mysterious substance known as “entrepreneurial spirit,” but what does that really mean?
It’s rarely the case that simply wishing really hard to be able to do something results in fabulous success. And it may be worth noting that founders of new businesses tend to be described as having that entrepreneurial spirit only after achieving success, while those who did not achieve success are rarely described as having failed due to a lack of entrepreneurial spirit. No, the failures are almost always attributed to more tangible things like a faulty business plan or insufficient funding.
There’s no organization or association to determine who can call themselves an entrepreneur. No tests, no experience requirements, no formal degrees of any kind. It’s not unlike how one can choose to define themselves as a painter, or a landscaper, or a dog walker, but just as with those endeavors it’s important to have a certain set of skills and attributes – some obvious and some not. Paintings are generally better when the artist has some level of understanding about how to prepare a canvas, blend colors, select brushes. Gardens thrive when a landscaper knows how to fertilize different types of plants, which flowers prefer sunny spots, and how deep to put the tulip bulbs. Dogs are happier when their walkers know how to … well, dogs are probably happy with any kind of walking really.
Certain functional skills are obviously beneficial in the start-up world. For example, some basic understanding about finance, accounting, marketing, law, etc. can make the process smoother and a lot less scary, but there are also many important, less obvious traits worth noting.
A willingness to fail may be the most important and least talked about trait for a successful entrepreneur. As with most personality traits, the relationship we have with failure falls on a spectrum ranging from “I absolutely hate making mistakes of any kind and do everything possible to avoid them,” to “Mistakes? Who cares?” Starting a company is an inherently difficult endeavor constantly challenged by factors beyond control. There’s no reason mistake-abhorring, would-be entrepreneurs can’t be successful, but self-awareness about this particular trait is important, as it’s easy to become paralyzed in the planning process, trying to avoid mistakes instead of trying to accomplish something amazing. It’s not easy to change how your brain works, but try to shift your perspective a little bit at a time. It’s ok to decide that you will not be defined by your mistakes. Remind yourself that everyone in the world will probably make mistakes today and it’s ok if you do too. Failing at reaching a crazy aggressive goal will probably yield a better outcome than hitting a super cautious one.
The Optimism/Pessimism spectrum also has significant influence on entrepreneurship and, just as with your relationship with failure, it’s more about knowing yourself than it is about changing yourself. It’s also about knowing your influencers. Let’s say you’ve got this new idea for a business, and you want to bounce it off a few people to see what they think. Go ahead and try it, and carefully note how they respond—what kinds of questions they ask and how excited they are. You may be surprised at just how consistently pessimistic most people are when presented with new ideas. For reasons no doubt known to evolutionary sociologists (if that is in fact an actual occupation), most people will start to tick through all the reasons why your new venture will be challenging, if not impossible. They’ll ask if you considered this risk or that hurdle or point out how hard it will be to do this and that and the other thing. Now pessimists, when confronted with just how negative they’re being, will no doubt resort to the “I’m just a realist” argument, which is of course poppycock. We get to measure realism on a different spectrum, thank you very much. And if your “realism” is meant to imply that you’re somewhere in the middle, then why are you only talking about bad things and no good things?
My unresearched theory on this is that humans survived and evolved by constantly identifying risks in their environment, and this instinct reveals itself when assessing dangerous new things like business ideas. Regardless of why this happens, it’s important to be aware of it and manage it as much as possible or you may just get talked out of a great business idea. One technique is to preface your new business idea with a request along the lines of, “I’m going to share this idea with you because I value your feedback, but I’d just like to ask that you please mention two or three things that you really like about the idea before we talk about concerns or reasons why it might not work, ok?” Most of the time, this approach will work, but you may run into pessimists who simply can’t say positive things. You may want to avoid seeking advice from these people.
Resilience is another often overlooked key attribute, and this should come as no surprise if you just finished reading the two paragraphs above. Launching a new enterprise for the first time will expose you to a dazzling array of new and exciting ways to fail, and will connect you to a shocking number of individuals (experts, of course) eager to explain all the reasons you’re crazy and can’t possibly succeed. There are many ways to think about and describe resilience. Whether you more closely relate to words such as persistence, perseverance, fortitude, or my personal favorite stick-to-itiveness, starting a new venture with self-awareness about this attribute can be tremendously helpful. You may get knocked down but try to focus on and rejoice in the getting back up. Be sure to have a support system of a few close friends and family members who are tasked with bringing a little resilience back up for you if you need it. Don’t avoid feeling frustrated and angry when things go bad. These feelings are just as valid and useful as any others and only become a problem when they are not allowed to pass. Find lessons in the setbacks. Fail, learn, and try again.
There are certainly many other traits important in entrepreneurship, but these are three I consider to be key from my own experiences. What would your top three be? Let us know on Twitter by tagging @VealeInstitute.