We’ve all heard this before: Entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes. The thing is – cliché or not – it’s true. Fixed all-encompassing formulae just seem not to fit the bill. The best one can do is to try to discover behaviours and traits which appear to be, by and large, common to many successful entrepreneurs, and from there create a number of recommendations. Here are some of mine.
Know Your Boundaries
There is nothing wrong with dreaming. Many great business ideas and innovations started with a dream. Many people dream, and do nothing. Some do not dream at all, because of various reasons to do with lack of self-belief, disillusionment, and a plethora of other reasons. Some people dream, try and fail, again for a variety of reasons. The clever part is when to stop dreaming and actually do something about it. And possibly the best recommendation is to have a very realistic grasp of your context. By being very aware of what you are surrounded with, you can also build a strong case for your idea. This could be some gap in the market, or a need. You should also have a good reality check of what you can actually do, with respect to the resources you have available, or can obtain. If you are working within an organisation, part of your reality check would involve knowing what type of organisation it is, how entrepreneurial it is, how much it encourages entrepreneurship – or intrapreneurship, in this case – what policies and strategies it has, and so on. Entrepreneurs are the first people who generally question the status quo, and try to bend or break rules which they feel stand in the way of an improved situation. Breaking rules always leads to consequences, whether positive or negative. If the environment you are working in does not allow such behaviour, then you better know what to expect. Even when questioning or breaking rules does not involve breaking laws, resistance is to be expected. Arthur Schopenhauer’s statement which applies to Entrepreneurship as much as to Innovation, has a very familiar ringto it: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”
Know Your Qualities
Character is a very important aspect of any entrepreneurial drive. The path you choose will depend on your character, and your qualities. Looking at what your strong points are, and what weaknesses you have, can be a very good starting point in giving yourself a risk assessment of any entrepreneurial venture. If you do not have people skills, it will be quite difficult to manage a team. If, on the other hand, you thrive with people around you, then better choose an idea that won’t keep you cooped up by yourself all day long. Making a simple SWOT analysis of yourself may be helpful to obtain a snapshot of where you are right now, and what you need to change to get to where you want to go. It may be through gaining experience, learning, or training for, a new skill, or simply covering a weakness with someone else’s strength.
To this end you should also look at the qualities of your key resources, especially (but not only) people. Do you have the right people for the job? Are you exploiting your people’s strengths and maximising effectiveness? Or are you expecting some individuals to deliver in areas where they are weak? In the case of the latter, training or coaching could help, or if possible, realigning their job description.
Know Your Path
Knowing which rules you can break can be quite tricky. Breaking some rules can land you in jail, others in court. Yet others can seem like great opportunities, but when implemented they just do not fly. This can happen because the market is not yet ready for them, or because the product or service is not well-packaged, or because you lack some vital part of the success process, such as having a great product but a limited or weak distribution or production system. Lack of financial backing can also be a determining factor as can be the ease by which others can imitate your offering. David Teece’s model can easily be applied to any entrepreneurial effort.
For example, the diet cola drink was originally created by a small soft drink supplier, who did not have the means to turn it into the mega drink that it became. Coca Cola did that, because they possessed the complementary assets necessary, in the form of marketing, distribution and financial set up both nationally and internationally.
Knowing your path is also about seeking opportunities. Edward De Bono’s book “Opportunities: A Handbook of Business Opportunity Search” could be worth a read. Keeping your ears to the ground, keeping that typical curiosity found in children, questioning and challenging what is usually not questioned or challenged, and trying to look at things from an unusual perspective can be fantastic ways of taking you “out of the box”.
Know Your Team
No man is an island. You need people to help you reach your objective, and many times it is the choice of the right people that makes the difference between success and failure. The saying “every problem is a people problem” goes far in expounding the extent of the importance of the human resource. Although it is possible to start a business by yourself, or even to maintain a one man-band type of enterprise (as can be seen almost all over the island), it is impossible to grow into a successful, larger enterprise just by yourself. For that you need people who will be on your wavelength and are ready to do what it takes. Mike Southon and Chris West, in their book “The Beermat Entrepreneur”, claim that every entrepreneur needs four cornerstones for an enterprise to grow successfully into a thriving and sustainable business. Every entrepreneur, according to them, needs someone who is good in Finance, someone who can do sales, someone who can deliver (operations), and someone who knows the technical aspect of the business. In many cases, more than one of these cornerstones can be satisfied by the same entrepreneur. However, it is rarely the case, if ever, that an entrepreneur would be skilful in all four areas.
Know when to Quit
“Failure is not an option” is a saying that elicits positive, even heroic, images. And there is much one can say in the positive value of persistence. Think of Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Colonel Sanders, who had more than one thousand rejections before he made it. Think of Oprah Winfrey who was originally fired from her job as a TV reporter and described as “unfit for TV”. Business literature is full of such stories, as are other areas. Let’s not forget that one of the most iconic musical bands of all times, The Beatles, had been rejected by all major music labels at first.
The other side of the coin is the very real consideration that whether you like it or not, you cannot avoid failure. Our reluctance to kill a bad project was very nicely described in an article written by Isabelle Royer for the Harvard Business Review in 2003. Failure often brings shame, which is a pity, since a failure is such a great opportunity to learn. As Henry Ford had once said: “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”
Hence persistence and failure are very intertwined. The only clarification to this is that you should persist intelligently, improving your project by learning why it failed the first time round, or by shifting direction. The saying goes that you need to kiss a lot of frogs to find one prince, but each frog you kiss should make you more determined to find a prince, because that one prince makes all the rejected frogs worth it.
One of the problems of our society is that the fear of failure stops us from starting in the first place. One of the most successful contemporary writers, J. K. Rowling, admitted to numerous failures in her life before she struck gold: “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”