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Columbia Business Monthly

Keys to Being a Successful Entrepreneur

May 02, 2018 10:40PM ● By Makayla Gay

By Dean Kress

  What qualities does a person need to be a successful entrepreneur? It is a question that has been asked over and over and has been the subject of thousands of hours of research. The bad news is no single psychological profile of an entrepreneur has been discovered by this research. The good news is anybody can be an entrepreneur.

Researchers have interviewed entrepreneurs, interacted with venture capitalists, and surveyed business executives and small business owners in attempt to reach conclusions about what makes a successful entrepreneur. As stated previously, no single model has emerged. However, some common themes have materialized.

In January of 1983, Dr. Jeffry Timmons of Babson College and Dr. Howard Stevenson of Harvard interviewed “60 practicing entrepreneurs” and captured their opinions about what makes a successful entrepreneur. Some of the common themes were:

Alertness in recognizing and pursuing new opportunities.

An openness to learning and utilizing new practices.

The importance of “enjoying and being interested in business.”

Many of the entrepreneurs cited the significance of human resource management, especially in regards to recruiting talented people. While not a characteristic, per se, it is also something that I have heard entrepreneurs say: They wish they had known more about human resource management when they started their enterprise.

In 1978, the Academy of Distinguished Entrepreneurs was established at Babson College. According to its web site, it is the “world’s first entrepreneurship hall of fame.” Included in its more than 100 inductees are such names as Ray Kroc, Richard Branson, Arthur Blank, Magic Johnson, and Robert Kraft. Inductees who have been interviewed cited three qualities as keys to success as an entrepreneur: 1) Be able to “respond positively to challenges and learn from mistakes, 2) personal initiative, and 3) great perseverance and determination.”

In 2007, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were interviewed together at the D5: All Things Digital conference. Jobs was emphatic in stating the need for passion in an entrepreneur. “People say you have to have a lot of passion for what you are doing, and it is totally true and the reason is because it is so hard, that if you don’t, any rational person would give up.” Jobs went on to cite the importance of perseverance and he referred to the importance of being a “good talent scout” to put together “a team of great people.”

In an interview with Inc. Video, Barbara Corcoran of Shark Tank fame identified two key traits of successful entrepreneurs. According to Corcoran, an entrepreneur must be “phenomenal at overcoming objections, obstacles, and setbacks.” To emphasize this point, she declared that the entrepreneur needs “the DNA of someone who likes to be slammed on their head and they are too stupid to lay low. They keep coming back up.” The second trait she named was having a high level of energy. According to Corcoran, if you possess and exhibit that energy, “you are persuasive,” and “what you naturally do is build a tremendous team.”

Based on the information that has been cited here, plus a great deal of other published research, and my own experiences, I have come up with five characteristics that I believe successful entrepreneurs should have:

Perseverance. This is mentioned more than any other trait or behavior. The entrepreneur needs a highly developed work ethic. This is, as they say, a no brainer.

Curiosity. By curiosity, I mean the entrepreneur is constantly looking for new ideas, opportunities, and practices. In the article “The Complete Entrepreneur,” D.G. Mitton (San Diego State University) stated, “Entrepreneurs have a knack for looking at the usual and seeing the unusual, at the ordinary and seeing the extraordinary. Consequently, they can spot opportunities that turn the commonplace into the unique and unexpected.”

Courage. This is a behavior cited by Timmons in his work. Courage here means being willing to try new techniques, pursue new ideas, and not be afraid to fail.

Leadership. A successful entrepreneur must lead both by words and action. Great leaders attract great people.

Acceptance. What the entrepreneur is accepting of is a certain level of risk, although the best entrepreneurs minimize risk as much as possible. The entrepreneur must also be accepting of performing in an environment of uncertainty.

I also believe that entrepreneurs will have to possess an understanding of the basic business functions, e.g., accounting, finance, marketing, etc.

But, as I tell my classes, there are no rules here that can’t be broken. Let’s look at an example.

Roxanne Quimby

Quimby was the founder of Burt’s Bees, which she started in 1987 in a one-room schoolhouse near Guilford, Maine. Her initial investment was $400. In November of 2008, Clorox purchased Burt’s Bees for $913 million. How did she do it?

That is a story for another day.

Dean Kress serves as Director of the Faber Entrepreneurship Center.  In that capacity, he teaches the introductory entrepreneurship course (Management 472) in the Darla Moore School of Business and assists in teaching the Capstone entrepreneurship course (Management 479), procuring project companies for that practicum course, among other duties.