It’s been debated for decades whether leaders are ‘born’ or ‘made’. What about entrepreneurs? Is there a genetic set of factors that predispose certain founders to greater success than other visionaries? Through eight case studies, thousands of hours of research, and decades of personal experience running four companies and coaching more than 65 other entrepreneurs, we uncover six of the skills necessary to turn your start-up into a sustainable success.
Let’s face it. If you’re an entrepreneur, or aspiring to be one, you’ve heard the cliché ”entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart”. If you haven’t already experienced the inevitable hardships of running your own business that belie this cliché, trust me – they’re in the mail.
This article is not intended to depress you however, quite the opposite. My aim is to inform, prepare, and empower my entrepreneurial brethren for greater success, confidence, and happiness in your respective endeavours.
While it is true that some great (even brilliant) ideas can still fail, it is also true that some businesses succeed despite their ideas. That is, what they lack in ingenuity, innovation, or disruption, they more than make up for in the execution of sound fundamentals and because of their team. In a great many cases, the founder(s) seem to possess a set of intangibles that make their success almost predestined.
One of the recent talks our company gave on this subject was met with so much interest and positive response; I wanted to write this article to share with a larger audience to help more of my fellow business leaders.
While our list is by no means definitive, or diagnostic in its’ ability to predict the success of any business, it is well researched and founded in personal experience running four businesses, coaching dozens of others, and a litany of business literature. So what skills do we feel an entrepreneur needs to give their start-up a fighting chance?
Vision. Some entrepreneurs discount their own visionary abilities if they feel their ideas are not on par with Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos. Vision, however, can be defined from many entrepreneurial lenses.
- The vision to see possibilities others don’t see
- The vision to see a reality that has yet to come to pass
- The ability to define a need, gap, or problem with the way an industry currently runs, and come up with a potentially viable solution
The above could manifest as in the four founders of Cirque De Soleil who saw massive upside in a declining market in the North American circus industry. Vision can also take the form of Walt Disney, who had such a grandiose vision for Disney that he gave an interview on his future dreams and hopes for the company as well as his ideas for a city of the future – on his deathbed!
Painting a clear picture. When Phil Knight knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur, he went backpacking and found himself in Japan. A student from the University of Oregon with little to his name, he was somehow able to convince Onitsuka Tiger (now Asics) to grant him exclusive dealership rights for the Western United States.
Blue Ribbon Sports, founded by Knight and his Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman for $1,200, is now better known as Nike, and valued at $29.6 billion USD as of 2017.
Drew Houston is also quite the story teller. When he was trying to get Dropbox off the ground, he faced skepticism from Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley start-up incubator. Houston was told he would need a cofounder, and so he convinced one of his MIT cohorts Arash Ferdowski to drop out of MIT and become his cofounder.
The pair were then able to wow the crowd at Y Incubator, including Sequoia Capital chairman Michael Moritz, who provided the company with its’ first round of outside fundraising, to the tune of $1.2 million.
Awareness. Like a great many entrepreneurs on this list, the Nike cofounder team of Knight and Bowerman display(ed) a great many of the skills listed. When it comes to self-awareness, the pair shone. According to Knight, Bowerman was obsessive about shoe design, construction, weight, and most of all – performance.
Bowerman was thus the natural ‘operational mindset’ while Knight took over finance, personnel, and the strategic growth of the company. Because they were aware of their own, and each other’s strengths, they were able to set themselves – and ultimately Nike – up for success. They did so by spending more time on their strengths, and less time where they weren’t particularly effective.
Even solopreneurs can heed this lesson, by deciding how their business is structured, what products or services to offer, and how they’ll communicate their offering to the public. Because so much is demanded of entrepreneurs, we must be self-aware enough to know what gifts we have that can turn into something of economic value for others.
Focus. The great trap for any entrepreneur is “shiny object syndrome”. It could be the successful retail sporting goods store whose owner sees an opportunity to add clothing lines, or it could be the fitness centre that tries to offer spa services. Are they related? Certainly.
Are they new businesses, with a life of their own, which require dedicated resources, time, and talent? Yes, and this takes away from the core offering that made the entrepreneur or business successful in the first place. I would argue that a lack of focus kills more businesses than a lack of opportunity.
Even Guinness, the world’s largest beer producer around the turn of the 19th century, had ballooned up to owning over 250 businesses, losing focus on their core business, before having to divest out of more than 150 businesses in just 18 months around the time of the second world war.
Discipline. To be focused requires discipline. Discipline helps entrepreneurs (let’s face it – athletes, musicians, any successful person) get out of bed early and stick to their morning routine. Discipline can get an entrepreneur to the gym 5 days a week, when motivation might only get them there once some weeks.
Discipline allows entrepreneurs to focus on what must get done, or on those activities most aligned with generating revenue and dealing with their biggest challenges, rather than falling victim to an endless array of distractions. Many entrepreneurs boast about working from home, only to find that by 3pm the house is clean, dog has been walked, laundry is done, but they haven’t done any prospecting or booked any meetings for the next day.
Duane “The Rock” Johnson is one of the best examples of discipline. His routine is hardly enviable, but his discipline sees him fit workouts in at 4am before starting his long days filming an endless array of movies, HBO’s hit show Ballers, and launching products like his workout gear in partnership with Under Armour.
Commitment. One thing every entrepreneur will have is adversity. We will all have many opportunities to throw in the towel. The founders of AirBnB for instance, had quite the turbulent series of starts and stalls before landing on the iteration of their shared economy room rental business we’d recognize today. While they shifted their model to revolve around conferences, political rallies, and even a certain presidential cereal, one thing they never did was quit.
So how do you get to know your greatest skills if you aren’t already highly self-aware? The short answer is feedback. In our coaching practice we recommend surrounding yourself with mentors more senior than you, peer mentors (ie mastermind groups), and friends who care enough about you to tell you what you are doing well, and what you can do better.
This practice can also be made more formal via the 360 degree review, one of our favorite tools when it comes to self-awareness and personal and professional development.
While this list does not include passion (a must), risk-tolerance or optimism (attitudes more than they are skills), or the ability to create life balance (a moving target for us all with no real universal definition), I wanted to explore the actual skills that all entrepreneurs should possess, or acquire, to set their ventures up for sustained success.