5 Must-Have Attributes For Successful Entrepreneurs

When I was the business editor for The Park Record newspaper, I interviewed dozens of Park City entrepreneurs. I discovered their motivations, combed over their business ideas, and played the role of amateur psychologist in identifying the thought processes of these people.

From my limited observation, these people all ranged from levels 1-10 on the “Dumb to Genius Scale.” However, the overall I.Q. didn’t seem to matter much. The successful entrepreneurs all had a few traits in common, and it didn’t seem to be Einstein-like brain power.

Aside from having a good business idea, here are the traits I noticed that helped those entrepreneurs be successful. And I’m very curious to your experience and thoughts. What will determine the success of an entrepreneur? Please comment below:

1. Risk? What’s that?

Those who laugh in the face of risk often make for successful entrepreneurs. The fear of risk might be the ultimate separator of entrepreneurs and employees. Whether it was an entrepreneur that started a new pizza restaurant, invented some new product, developed new technology, or started a business in a competitive industry, the No Fear attribute seemed to be the most important characteristic. As an entrepreneur, you have to move forward without being paralyzed by “What if it all fails?”

In the Tech Crunch article “Should You Really Be a Startup Entrepreneur?” Mark Suster, an entrepreneur and VC, said:

Make sure it’s in your personality type, make sure you have the risk appetite, make sure you can afford to take the risks given your life situations and make sure you know that there is a high possibility your startup won’t be hugely financially rewarding. If you still want to go for it knowing all this and all that you’ll endure – awesome! It’s the best experience I’ve had in life. But not for the faint-hearted.”

2. ‘Ready, Fire, Aim’

A recent Inc. Magazine story titled “How Great Entrepreneurs Think” revolved around a survey by Saras Sarasvathy, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. It surveyed corporate leaders and entrepreneurs, and revealed interesting differences between the two. One entrepreneur in the article said:

I always live by the motto of ‘Ready, fire, aim.’ I think if you spend too much time doing ‘Ready, aim, aim, aim,’ you’re never going to see all the good things that would happen if you actually started doing it. I think business plans are interesting, but they have no real meaning, because you can’t put in all the positive things that will occur … If you know intrinsically that this is possible, you just have to find out how to make it possible, which you can’t do ahead of time.”

Successful entrepreneurs are usually very decisive and move forward, fixing things on the way. That is not to say entrepreneurs don’t have goals, “only that those goals are broad and – like luggage – may shift during flight. Rather than meticulously segment customers according to potential return, they itch to get to market as quickly and cheaply as possible.”

RELATED STORY: Interview with Barbara Corcoran from Shark Tank.

3. Improvise, Adapt, Overcome

It’s the unofficial mantra of the Marines. But it applies to business owners of all shapes and sizes. The Inc. article showcases this well. Sarasvathy compared expert entrepreneurs to Iron Chefs:

At their best when presented with an assortment of motley ingredients and challenged to whip up whatever dish expediency and imagination suggest. Corporate leaders, by contrast, decide they are going to make Swedish meatballs. They then proceed to shop, measure, mix, and cook Swedish meatballs in the most efficient, cost-effective manner possible.”

Sarasvathy said entrepreneurs rely on effectual reasoning. They are brilliant improvisers who constantly assess how to leverage their own strengths and resources and develop goals on the fly.

By contrast, corporate executives—those in the study group were also enormously successful in their chosen field—use causal reasoning. They set a goal and diligently seek the best ways to achieve it. Early indications suggest the rookie company founders are spread all across the effectual-to-causal scale. But those who grew up around family businesses will more likely swing effectual, while those with M.B.A.’s display a causal bent. Not surprisingly, angels and seasoned VCs think much more like expert entrepreneurs than do novice investors.”

The entrepreneurs in her study seemed impatient with anything involving extensive planning, particularly traditional market research. Entrepreneurs also give a second thought to their competitors at launch. One entrepreneur surveyed said:

Your competition is a secondary factor. I think you are putting the cart before the horse … Analyze whether you think you can be successful or not before you worry about the competitors.”

4. Good Salesmen

Everything we do is sales. It’s even more so for people trying to build a business. It’s probably the other most common attribute of those business owners I interviewed. Each one seemed to know the right buttons that sold their product or service.

Entrepreneurs have to sell to their customers or clients, sure, but they also have to sell their idea to partners, investors, lenders, potential employees, on social media, to mainstream media, and so on. Without sales skills, it’s like an author who writes the next great novel, but never gets it in front of the right publisher. Good ideas are a dime a dozen. But you have to sell that idea to the right people.

5. Blindingly Optimistic and Embrace Rejection

I’ve you’ve talked to many founders of successful startups, nothing seems to get them down, no matter how many tell them their ideas are stupid. They remain optimistic even after being rejected many times. Bnter CEO Lauren Leto said “Every day, I try to get rejected,” in a TechCrunch interview.

Being able to handle rejection, and even seek it out, seems to be crucial for entrepreneurs. That confidence matters, especially after being rejected 49 times, and then walking into a room where that 50th investor is ready to give you a $1 million dollar check, or when you present yourself to a lender get a small business loan. You have to be able to present your idea and own the room with confidence.

The Inc. story mentioned above stated:

Corporate managers believe that to the extent they can predict the future, they can control it. Entrepreneurs believe that to the extent they can control the future, they don’t need to predict it … Entrepreneurs thrive on contingency. The best ones improvise their way to an outcome that in retrospect feels ordained.”

What do you think? Do you agree? What other attributes do you think entrepreneurs need to be successful? Please share below:

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  1. Love, love the photo. Also, good point that you don’t have to be a genius to be an entrepreneur—and that not all entrepreneurs are geniuses.

    • Arienne, I think you’re a genius for your brilliant comment. And, yeah, that photo is pretty awesome. I may use it for every blog post we have …

  2. Dan,

    Great post! A couple of comments that I would make are:

    1- I would be cautious about the “ready, fire, aim” concept. To me this seems to indicate going off half-cocked, and possibly without having thought through things. I think a good entrepreneur is actually more like “ready, gut-check, fire, adapt.” This ties nicely in to your point on Improvisation ( a concept strongly made by Mike Bonnifer of GameChangers.com.)

    2- You post also rightly makes points about the differences between big business professionals (successful ones), and successful entrepreneurs. This has a lesson tied to it as well: Many entrepreneurs handle smaller things faster, better with quicker turnaround. But they may struggle with and get frustrated by things that get bigger and more drawn out (e.g. the contract that takes 8 months to get negotiated and signed.) I have seen many companies that are very successful up to a point… That point is when some areas of the business need to start to scale differently. Unfortunately, this can often require different skills. The entrepreneur who cannot adapt to that change, or cannot realize that he needs to bring in other people, with other skills to help out can fall into a trap. It is at this stage that co-founders can start to in-fight and draw silos. Knowing what your weaknesses are, and being willing to bring in the right skills to help in those areas is just as important as knowing your strengths.

    At least that’s my two cents :)

    • Great 2 cents, Steve. So great, you should be a guest blogger on our site …

      I’ve also seen entrepreneurs that have started the company well, but then get in over the head once it reaches a certain size, and they have to bring in a seasoned CEO to take it to the next level. Agreed that both may take different skill sets.

  3. Great post and picture, Dan (I’m a sucker for cute babies).

    My comment – if you’ve been around the entrepreneurial block a few times (as I have) another attribute has to be “reboundability” (not a real word, I know – but you get my meaning). Most successful entrepreneurs will tell you this ain’t their first rodeo. Though they may have fallen on their rumps a few times, they shake it off and try again. If someone doesn’t have that quality in them, they should go work for somebody else. N’est-ce pas?

  4. “Belief” system internally that focuses specifically on goal at hand. Takes team members contributions to ultimate goal as a must have for success. Quick in decisions and rare to change path of game plan.

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