Blast through the obstacles

September 2012

Rocket launchingThe short answer to the question about whether entrepreneurs can be taught is ‘yes’. However, there are some important caveats, as Rob Wirszycz FBCS explains.

The topic has become ever more important, due to the current rapidly changing state of the jobs market. There is no longer any ‘job for life’, if there ever really was. Many people, faced with the prospect of no easily available salaried work, are looking to branch out and start their own business.

For many there has been a germ of an idea, an itch that needs scratching, for some time. For others, they get a sudden insight while working as a wage slave, which sparks a latent interest that could be turned into a business. For each person armed with this gift of an idea who actually do something about it, there are many, many others who do nothing. This act, the very action of doing, is the first mark of an entrepreneur.

By the way, I don’t count as real entrepreneurs those who have a personal business, such as working as an IT contractor. I see them more as ‘independent workers’, or ‘free agents’. They are folks who have, for the most part, swapped the security blanket of a salary for an alternative form of employment.

Sure, there are risks involved in this course of action, but to me, they are not creating anything new, not generating value, not carving out a differentiated place in the market, all of which are all objectives, often undefined by the entrepreneur, that in my book, are the second mark of an entrepreneur.

My qualification to have these views comes from my work with literally hundreds of entrepreneurs, over 20 or more years. I may even modestly claim to be one myself.

Right now, I work with about 20 such people, either in my role as chairman of their company, or as an advisor or mentor to them individually. This experience has shown me that entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes, ages and genders, some loud, some quiet, some ferociously bright, others less so. There is not much of a pattern from what I can see.

However, there is one common thread, a desire for independence married to a strong self-belief in their eventual success. Sometimes this self-belief is misguided, but often the drive to succeed is so strong that it blasts through obstacles. This optimism, allied with persistence, can move mountains.

These essential attributes, my third mark of an entrepreneur, make me caveat my positivity about whether entrepreneurs can be taught. There are though, in my experience, at least five elements that can be taught and which, once understood and acted upon, do make a difference to entrepreneurial performance:

Taught elements

1. Markets matter more than a great product.

In the technology business, where I have worked for the last 20-odd years, many people start out with a product, or perhaps what we might term a ‘solution’ in mind. They believe that the ‘better mousetrap’ will bring people racing to their door to buy, with riches closely following. This is rarely true. Addressing a real, not perceived, market need, a ‘pain’ in the parlance, and having the perfect answer matters more than anything.

2. Sales make a business.

Sales and sales people have a bad rap generally but unless you are willing to push, and push hard, you won’t win. This is not to say that you need to be dishonest to make a sale, as to my mind, the best sales have mutual value and lead to further business - you don’t achieve that if you are ripping people off. One interesting observation is that in young businesses, the managing director, usually the entrepreneur, almost always closes the deals - you can’t rely on a sales person to do that for you.

3. Know where your reverse gear is.

You have to admit defeat sometimes. Not that you will be a good loser, rather you will sit and analyse what went wrong and fix what you can fix, and start over better. There is only shame in failure or a failure to learn, none in a honourable retreat. I believe it was Einstein who said the definition of insanity was ‘doing the same thing and expecting a different result’. So, know when it isn’t working, go back and make changes.

4. Balance staff loyalty with knowledge that it isn’t working out.

You will run a lean operation and every hire you make will be significant. However, there will come a time when you have to have ‘that conversation’ and let someone pursue their career elsewhere. It is for the good of the company. It hurts but I have seen more pain and agony from situations where the difficult conversation was not had, than keeping going and hoping it will get better. Entrepreneurs are sensitive but not sentimental.

5. You probably only have enough resources to do one thing well.

The most common mistake I find with technology entrepreneurs is that they cannot narrow their focus. They become terrified of making a decision about a target market or a particular functionality that they believe limits their applicability. Herein lies sub-optimisation and a higher chance of failure. Make a big call, make it singular, and make it right.

All being said, I cannot complete this article without saying something about risk taking. Many people believe that they could not be an entrepreneur because they don’t like taking risks.

This could be true, but my experience tells me that most entrepreneurs are not risk takers, rather they are risk managers. Most agonise for hours and days, even through sleepness nights over decisions that could go one way or the other. Ultimately though they know they have to make a decision and make it work. For most entrepreneurs it is not about making the right decision, more about making the decision they have made right.

There are probably two things that separate those that succeed from those that don’t; firstly, a willingness ‘to get back on the horse after it has thrown them off’, sometimes many times, and secondly, a willingness to ask for and to take advice.

Entrepreneurship is a team game, not a solo enterprise or a spectator sport. It demands a lot of hard work, single-mindedness, and a following wind. Getting it right is phenomenally rewarding, largely in terms of personal satisfaction and human feedback. There are clearly financial rewards if you get it right, but most entrepreneurs are not filthy rich, rather comfortable and happy with their achievements.

So, if you are considering whether to take the entrepreneurial route, you should know that much of what makes success happen can be learned.

However, if you don’t have that desire for independence, that drive to succeed, that inner purpose, then perhaps you ought to think about another tack. But if you do go for it, you shall likely find it a rich and rewarding, if sometimes frustrating, journey. And once you start, it can be addictive.

Many people I know are serial, even parallel entrepreneurs, who have, in some cases, started over 10 businesses! So, the final message is, if you have the entrepreneurial itch, do scratch it.

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    Robert wrote on 26th Sep 2012

    These a very good and wise words. Are you open for business as an "Entrepreneur Mentor". If so we can talk. Regards.

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