Six steps to becoming a great entrepreneur
Entrepreneurship might look like the ticket to overnight success, easy money or at the very least a welcome vacation from monotony. In reality, it’s one of the toughest jobs out there. Why being an entrepreneur isn’t as easy as it looks, and what it takes to become a great one
by Max Fawcett
Maybe you’ve always dreamed of starting your own business. Maybe you’re sick and tired of the job you’re at right now. Or maybe you’ve found a way to build a better mousetrap, reinvent the wheel or develop a better cliché that describes the process of running a business. What matters isn’t the why but instead the what and the when: You’re ready to become an entrepreneur, and you’re ready to start right now.
And why not? After all, given the way people talk about the life of the entrepreneur, you could convince yourself – and, more importantly, your stubbornly skeptical family members – that you aren’t just trying to make a buck, but to save the world in the process. It seems like just about everyone, from urbanist Richard Florida to billionaire Richard Branson (and, yes, people with other first names) are talking up the importance of entrepreneurship, and suggesting that it can address everything from urban blight and student debt to economic stagnation and social disorder. It’s become the equivalent of the combination of a good diet and regular exercise, a cure for every ailment.
But if there’s one piece of advice that successful entrepreneurs have for you, it’s this: don’t quit your day job. Not yet, anyways. First, they say, make sure your heart is in the right place – and your head too, for that matter. As Famoso co-founder and serial entrepreneur Christian Bullock likes to tell prospective business partners, entrepreneurship is a marriage, not an affair. That means you’d better be ready for the commitment – and for the late nights, the early mornings, the missed birthdays, the foregone vacations and every other sacrifice that virtually every successful entrepreneur has had to make to get where they are today. “I tell everyone when they come in to do business with us, ‘You’re either going to love it or hate it,’ ” he says. “ ‘There’s no in-between.’ ”
Here’s the good news, though: when it comes to entrepreneurship, what matters most is hard work. Devesh Dwivedi, an author, business coach and longtime entrepreneur, says entrepreneurship is a field that’s open to just about anyone – provided they’re willing to put in the time. “It may sound like a cliché, but the truth of the matter is that it’s all about persistence when it comes to entrepreneurship,” he says. “There is no other characteristic. Money, you can raise. Time, you can buy. A team, you can build. But you can’t borrow persistence from anybody.”
Slow and steady wins the race
To most, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg might look like an overnight success – and a preposterously wealthy one at that. But while the second part of that statement is true, the first is something of a misconception. “Facebook, or any successful business, isn’t just about the idea,” Dwivedi says. “It’s about the execution. People before Mark Zuckerberg had the idea of a social network, and people tried it after Facebook too. What does that tell us? That it’s not about the idea; it’s about the execution.”
According to Craig Elias, the founder of Shift Selling and an instructor in entrepreneurship at the University of Calgary, that means doing it right rather than doing it right away. It’s a lesson he says many entrepreneurs have learned the hard way. “They know that the faster you try to get things done, the more expensive it is,” he says, “whether it’s from a monetary perspective or the relationships that you burn.”
Famoso’s Bullock hasn’t fallen into that trap, but he says he’s seen plenty of people who have – particularly newer entrepreneurs who have enjoyed a bit of success and let it go to their head. “They might think they know everything, and they want to move quickly without all the infrastructure underneath them,” he says. “With Famoso, one of our biggest goals when we started was to do it right – to have that strong infrastructure underneath us.”
Fake it till you make it
Its an old saw: look before you leap. Dwivedi says it’s one of the most important things entrepreneurs can do and, thanks to the Internet, suddenly one of the easiest. “Having a good idea is one thing, but when reality really hits, that’s when you find out if that idea will fly or not,” he says. “What I recommend is that people do some inexpensive tests on their idea – run a Kijiji or Craigslist ad for the service or product they want to sell, and see if anyone replies.”
The product or service in question doesn’t even have to exist – just think of the unwitting online participants as volunteer members of your own personal focus group. That’s how Dropbox, the cloud storage service created in 2007 by Drew Houston and Arash Ferdowsi, got started. “They only had PowerPoint slides that they had a graphic designer do, so it looked like the software existed,” Dwivedi says. “They hacked their way into raising a few million dollars because they knew that to start a company like Dropbox they needed a few million dollars from day one.” Dropbox has since raised more than $250 million in venture capital, and is worth an estimated $1 billion.
Ask and ye might receive
For entreprenEurs pride really can come before the fall. That’s why Elias suggests they ask for help before it’s too late. “If you want something, just ask,” he says. “Whatever it is: you want someone to be a mentor, you want a customer, you want an introduction. The vast majority of people would love to be helpful but they’re not going to be proactive.”
And while he says some entrepreneurs might feel like they have to “earn” the right to ask for help, that’s nonsense. After all, just about everyone who is successful owes some portion of that to someone who helped them along their way. “Let’s assume you’re a startup entrepreneur, and you want someone to be a mentor – and I think mentorship is one of the things that most entrepreneurs don’t find early enough – you pick up the phone,” he says. “The vast majority will say ‘Yes,’ because the way they became successful is that somebody else helped them. There’s this huge pay-it-forward mentality in the world of entrepreneurship.”
There’s no such thing as a universally applicable rule in the world of entrepreneurship, but this one is about as close as it gets: If it’s been done before, don’t try to do it again. According to Dwivedi, those who fail to adhere to it are courting disaster. “These are the people who, I think, are not entrepreneurs – they just want to jump on the bandwagon of a successful idea and make some money. And most of the time, these are the people who actually fail.” Ashif Mawji, the founder of Upside Software and NPO Zero, agrees. “They’ve seen other people do it, and they’re trying to mimic success. And it may work at times, but for me I find that if you have something you’re really passionate about, something you really want to build, the money will come.”
Likewise, make sure that what you’re passionate about is specific and tangible enough to build a business around. “The dirty little f-word in entrepreneurship is ‘focus,’ ” Elias says. “Pick some industry, some geography, some problem, some type of concept – but pick something, and focus on it.”
The hard sell
Do you know the difference between selling and marketing? According to Elias, most new entrepreneurs don’t. Instead, they subscribe to what one could call the W.P. Kinsella approach to sales: If you build it, they will come. Unfortunately, he says, that’s not how the world actually works.
“They tell the world how good they are and wait for the customer to call them. That’s not selling. Selling is picking up the phone and having a one-to-one conversation with someone who might have a need for your product or service. Most entrepreneurs suck at selling. They’re not great at marketing by any means, but they suck at selling.” And while sales may not come naturally to most entrepreneurs, Elias says it’s something they shouldn’t ignore – or delegate to someone else.
“The person who has the most credibility, the most experience and who can tell the best stories is the entrepreneur,” he says.
Learn from your mistakes
You probably know that the vast majority of all new businesses fail. And if you don’t, well, here’s your reality check. But the good news is that, in the highly likely event that your first entrepreneurial venture fails, the experience doesn’t have to be a total loss. Elias says entrepreneurs should look to pull three things from the wreckage of a failed business: your relationships, your reputation and your relevant experience. “You have to make sure you take those three things from your first business to your second,” he says. “Otherwise, your odds of being successful the second time around are almost exactly the same as the first time. You’re starting from scratch all over again.”
Indeed the experience of failure is often what makes good entrepreneurs into great ones. He says everyone starts off as an uninformed optimist, makes the progression to an informed pessimist as things inevitably go pear-shaped, and then, if they’re lucky and persistent, they emerge on the other side. “Then they become informed optimists,” says Ashif Mawji. That balance between pessimism and optimism is something he sees in all successful entrepreneurs. “I see the right dose of pessimism, the right dose of optimism and the right dose of efficiency,” he says. “It’s kind of like a concoction: If you have the right mix, you make a really good entrepreneur.”