An owner’s dispatches from the front lines.
I recently read an article in The New York Times about a program that had been proving for many years what lots of people had long suspected — that SAT scores are not necessarily great predictors of college success. The piece got me thinking about my own observations about the relationship between college success and entrepreneurial success. Or perhaps I should say the lack of a relationship.
Choosing entrepreneurship might be one of the most simple and pure adventures you can take. No permission needed, no essays to write, no tests to take, no interviews to get through, no one to tell you what to do or what not to do — and of course no one else to take the credit or blame.
You need only the possibly crazy notion that someone wants to pay you money for your goods or services — and the guts to quit your job, sign the lease, borrow some money, spend the money and tell your spouse, parents, and/or parole officer. For some, this is invigorating. For others it is intimidating. It can be both. Certainly, it is very different from the more predictable paths of going to graduate school or getting a job.
As I said, in my 30 years in business, I have never seen a relationship between being a good student and being a successful entrepreneur. If anything, there might be some correlation between people who were bored or annoyed with school and people who succeed in their own businesses. I have my own theory that I have shared with college classes over the years — often at schools that would not have admitted me as a student but are happy to have me speak to their students.
I always enjoy telling the soon-to-be graduates that if they decide to go into business for themselves, the straight-A students will no longer have the advantage. While it certainly doesn’t hurt to be smart, I find that it is not enough — just as being tall isn’t enough to make you a basketball player. I believe successful entrepreneurs are likely to have six attributes that they don’t test for in school. Many people don’t know if they have these attributes until they take the leap.
1. Ambition. Most people believe they are ambitious, I think. But there is ambitious, and then there is 70-hour-a-week obsessive, driven, hungry ambitious. Can you make it if you are just kind of ambitious? Probably, in some cases. But most successful entrepreneurs I know paid some serious dues. They did not want to be successful, they needed to be successful.
2. Creativity. I’m not talking about painting a picture or writing a love song. I’m talking about coming up with innovative ideas about marketing, management or finance (preferably not toocreative in finance). Not all business schools do enough to encourage creativity, but it can really bloom in a business and have a huge impact on its success.
3. Tenacity. I did not know this when I started, but tenacity is critical to starting and staying in business. Rookie entrepreneurs make many mistakes, and they have to be fixed. Plus, bad things and bad economies happen, and they have to be survived. Being stubborn can be a terrible attribute to have in school — but a great asset in business.
4. Risk tolerance. It is almost impossible to go into business without taking risk, and it doesn’t necessarily get better along the way. Bigger buildings, more employees, more expensive computer systems, the list goes on and on. Some people can’t handle having a credit card balance, and other people can borrow big money without hesitation. Some people obsess about everything that can go wrong, some people don’t think about it or are confident they can deal with whatever happens. Nature or nurture? Don’t know. Doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that you know your own tolerance. Again, this is not tested in school.
5. Intuition. Some people are just better at seeing what is coming down the road and coming up with the right answers to vague questions. Think Steve Jobs. Even just a little bit of Steve Jobs can go a long way.
6. Personality. You remember the person who was always the life of the party in college but almost didn’t graduate? That person might be a successful entrepreneur (or might be living in a van down by the river). The meek may inherit the earth, but they are probably not going to be entrepreneurs. For an entrepreneur, an optimistic personality is a gift — and an occupational hazard.
That’s my list. It is the product of many years of observation and self-analysis. It is not scientific. I can’t prove any of this. But no animals were harmed, and the government was not involved. Let me know what you think — especially if you are a successful (or unsuccessful) entrepreneur.