The other night I was at the Venture Camp Series put on by George Mason University's Center for Social Entrepreneurship. One of the questions that started out the panel discussion was what were the characteristics of an entrepreneur. Here are my top then.
While entrepreneurs are typically associated with business, I think one major characteristic that defines them is that they are simply über interested in the world around them. They tend to ask a lot of questions and find very few topics boring.
Most entrepreneurs don’t need someone to tell them what to do. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are dismissive of authority, many actually have a bit of a rebellious streak, but that their own internal drive is pretty strong.
If you ask entrepreneurs why they do startups, you’ll find a common theme in their answers: the current way sucks – the world would be such a better place if they did it “my” way. While only a few of these new ways of doing things make it to the mass market, the ones that do end up making a profound impact.
4. Failure = Progress Mentality.
I wouldn’t say that entrepreneurs don’t fail or don’t ever feel like they have failed, but it’s very difficult for them to get burdened down by the negative aspects of failure when it’s the only way to make real progress.
Most entrepreneurs are passionate about what they do and it’s this passion that allows them to convince people, both as customers and employees, to join them.
6. Atypical risk/reward structure.
Many people look at entrepreneurs and say, “I could never do that – it’s too risky.” They associate doing something risky as being overly brave or courageous. This was actually one of the things the panel mentioned. I don’t think entrepreneurs are brave or courageous. It’s just that their risk/reward structure is built differently. Giving up the perks of a consistent salary for something new (satiates curiosity) that might change the world (feeds idealistic streak) along with all the other things in this list, isn’t really risky if it’s these are the things that provide the greatest sense of fulfillment.
Most entrepreneurs I’ve met enjoy breaking things down or apart and then putting them back together. This could mean actual physical things or systems and processes. While most people think that entrepreneurs have some unique ability to generate insight, it's actually through tinkering that these insights reveal themselves.
8. Comfortable alone.
All startups begin with just one or two people in a small room for an inordinate number of hours. At this stage, there are no teams or division. No parties are holidays. Entrepreneurs tend to see time alone as something valuable as opposed to something that should be avoided.
Entrepreneurs don't give up easy. I was at a patent conference once where someone had been working an idea for 15 years before it really took off.
Most people associate this terms with drawing or painting, but I think this it's really about an ability to build new models or systems based on a set of diverse experiences that lead to new ways of thinking.
A lot of people get hung up on the term entrepreneur and think that it’s all about startups and venture capitalists. To be fair, this list was actually prompted by a meeting of people talking about just that, so the confusion is understandable.
But I don’t think you have to start a new company to be an entrepreneur. There are plenty of very innovative organizations that value all of these characteristics and are able to create an organizational structure and culture that encourages an entrepreneurial spirit. It's just that in companies consisting of multiple divisions and departments the term "entrepreneur" wouldn't be that useful in making your way around.
The bottom line, then, is that regardless of what you do and where you are, if you fit the above profile and never thought of yourself as an entrepreneur, I hate to break it to you – you are one.