In his second Business School column, serial entrepreneur, CBE and Professor of the Practice of Entrepreneurship at King’s College London, Stefan Allesch-Taylor, asks what it really means to be an entrepreneur – and discusses why it isn’t for everyone. You can find the first instalment of Business School – So you’ve got a great idea, now what? – here.
If you’re in doubt and need to check if you have the personality required to be a successful entrepreneur, simply Google ‘must have traits of a successful entrepreneur’. Enjoy the waffle. It makes me cringe. You will read words like: passion, motivation, optimism, creativity, determination. Frankly that sounds like a fairly good job description for a nurse or schoolteacher. I have never understood the need for people in business to appropriate the best traits of life as if they were the sole purview of entrepreneurs. Come to think it, my teenage daughter Ernie wants to be a photographer and I told her she would need all of the above to succeed… so there you have it.
The question is what traits do you really need and who’s going to tell you the truth? I weighed up the pros and cons over being too direct here. Partly because, like all unvarnished truths, this could be interpreted as a slightly jaded view, which it isn’t by the way, or harsh, which it probably is. Like most human traits, there are degrees of severity and this is very much one man’s opinion.
To be a successful entrepreneur you have to be good with money – for that read tight, read really very, very mean with money. Like quibbling over everything on the bill on a first date and having zero chance of getting a second date mean. You wouldn’t think so watching the ‘burn’ of big tech companies or the staggering losses of others but remember the stats – only a tiny percentage of new companies survive. If you can’t balance your monthly budget, it’s going to be a problem. Every penny spent has to be thought about before you spend it – navel gazing analysis after the coffers are empty will help no one.
You need to be ruthless. And here we bump into some issues. One CEO’s ‘ruthless’ is another’s ‘efficient’ and it gets contradictory and confusing doesn’t it? After all, how are you supposed to be a ‘people person’ (that’s always on these lists – because great entrepreneurs are always known for their interpersonal skills. Not!) and be ruthless? The answer is simple. Degrees and willingness. What I mean by that is, you will know when to lose someone but won’t want to do it. The second you start making excuses for someone – because they’re your best mate, or brother or uncle or something suitably ‘employee No. 1’ – is the second you know they have to go, and you are just ducking it. Be ruthless. On that note when they go, they go instantly. The amount of chaos I’ve seen caused by people exiting over a long period is incalculable. 5-minute rule. Always.
You need to be able to hustle, to cajole and to persuade. There is a very thin line between being a great entrepreneur and something not so glamorous. Again, there’s balance here and personal ethics come into play – we all know the difference between right and wrong – but if you can’t sell a cure to a dying man then re-evaluate. If you have no ‘game’ or just don’t like asking people for things, this isn’t for you.
Read the other person, care about what they think and what they are trying to achieve – it isn’t all about you. Again, this can be misunderstood – I don’t mean it from a ‘tell me all your problems I’m a good listener’ standpoint. It’s much simpler. If you don’t listen carefully to what the other person wants in any given situation (and in business everyone wants something) then you’re going to miss something crucial to getting them to do what you need them to do. Very few people are direct – you’ll have to read between the lines on many occasions.
Vision. This could be one of the ‘flakier’ words used, I know, but it’s crucial. You need to consistently repeat your vision to everyone involved with your company, because you are training them to repeat it to people you don’t talk to – and because, while you live with that vision every second of the day, others do not. As time passes and life gets in the way of plans, as you pivot and weave past and around obstacles, your vision can be forgotten.
As an entrepreneur you know there are different routes to achieve that vision. Not everyone will see it, or the direction you’re taking, without explanation. Clear explanation. If after six months you ask each of your senior team to give you an elevator pitch and a) they are all different and b) none sound like your vision – dig out your CV.
Finally, respect. Learn to respect anyone at any level of your venture who does something well – no matter how small it may seem. Make a point of letting them know you have noticed it. You will be amazed the results sincerity can yield.
Join the Gentleman’s Journal Clubhouse here.