All kinds of people can be successful in business, but it takes a particularly gifted person to be a great entrepreneur.
Entrepreneurship demands a number of personality traits and skills, including many that appear to contradict each other. For example, you must be passionate, bold, and risk-taking, but at the same time, humble, adaptable, and a good listener. You must be able to dream up big ideas, but at the same time have the skills and the resources necessary for making those ideas happen.
By Laura Childers
For those aspiring to start a business, the job description may seem unrealistic. How can you be a dreamy visionary type, but also detail-oriented and practical? How can you be great at meticulous planning, but also great at keeping cool when meticulous plans go awry?
The fact is, there is no perfect entrepreneur – no matter how qualified a person may be. Everyone makes mistakes and has areas of weakness. What sets great entrepreneurs apart, though, is that they make these mistakes and weaknesses a crucial part of the entrepreneurial process. They confront them head on, they improve, and they never give up.
So while it’s true in some sense that you need to be a jack-of-all trades, experts say that a few qualities – qualities like determination – rise to the top as the most essential when starting a business. A surprisingly simple group of character traits and habits can set the foundation for entrepreneurial success…that is, for those willing to dust themselves off and try, try again.
Read on to learn about 15 of these traits. To some, they may seem almost too obvious. However, in practice, each one can make a profound difference.
Charlie Brock, is the president and CEO of Launch Tennessee, a public-private partnership overseeing Tennessee’s nine accelerators and fostering collaboration to enhance entrepreneurship in Tennessee. A longtime entrepreneur and investor in Chattanooga, he has led FourBridges Capital Advisors, CO.LAB, and the Chattanooga Renaissance Fund.
Richard Becherer, D.B.A., is the Clarence E. Harris Chair of Excellence in Business & Entrepreneurship Marketing at the UTC College of Business. A seasoned entrepreneur, he started one of the first for-profit and publicly traded HMO’s in the U.S. He possesses 18 years of experience in the academy and has published research in several leading academic journals including Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice and The Journal of Small Business Management.
1. Successful entrepreneurs are hard-working & tenacious.
Entrepreneurs agree: there is no magic bullet that can take your business to where you want it to be. It takes years of hard work and determination. Entrepreneurship is an ultramarathon. You have to chug along, one step at a time, even in the midst of obstacles. Call it determination, call it persistence – great entrepreneurs grit their teeth and get down to business.
“I think some qualities are frosting and others are cake,” says Dr. Richard Becherer, who teaches entrepreneurship at the UTC College of Business. “Inspiring others is great, but if you are not resilient you will never get a chance to inspire anyone. A certain stick-to-it-ness is really important. Assuming you can get through the hurdles, the other things will serve you. But first and foremost, you have to be determined enough to not take no for an answer.”
2. Successful entrepreneurs have a vision.
Great entrepreneurs see opportunities where others don’t. They can look into the future and imagine something that doesn’t exist – yet. Forward-thinking, they are full of fresh ideas that will keep them steps ahead of the market. And a good deal of the time, it all starts with solving a personal problem.
“We find that people have the best entrepreneurial instincts when they themselves have the problems they are trying to solve,” says Becherer. “Typically, these people can invent a far better product or process than someone who has never experienced the same issues.”
He explains this is why professors encourage students to be out working in the “real world” for a period before going to business school. “Getting a sense for a certain industry and becoming aware of its needs definitely puts you in a better position to start a company.”
3. Successful entrepreneurs execute.
An entrepreneur must be both coach and player; the one developing the strategy as well as the one getting dirty out on the field. Successful business people have to actually be able to do what they envision – not just dream about it. An idea may be great, but that’s all it ever will be if an entrepreneur doesn’t have the skills or the wherewithal to make it happen.
“I think being able to execute is rarer than having a vision,” says Becherer. “A lot of people have a vision and they don’t know what to do with it. We try to give people the tools to do that at UTC.”
4. Successful entrepreneurs are passionate.
Passion is about being fully committed to what you want to achieve – having a “fire in your belly” as some might say. Entrepreneurs who are excited about what they do are inspiring. Out of their sheer enthusiasm, they have a unique ability to attract the support of people around them, whether it’s their team of employees or a group of potential investors.
But of course, there’s always a balance. “Just because you are passionate about something, doesn’t mean anyone else is,” says Becherer. “Sometimes there’s just not a big demand for something. So there’s a balance between being passionate and being able to respond to the market.”
5. Successful entrepreneurs have a tolerance for ambiguity.
An ability to stay collected in the midst of uncertainty is an extremely important quality for entrepreneurs, because the role typically comes with a great deal of unknowns – both financial and circumstantial – that take time to resolve. Entrepreneurs must be able to “let go” of total control; to confront their fears and push through periods of not knowing what may happen.
“It may end up being more of a circular process than a linear process,” says longtime Chattanooga entrepreneur and investor Charlie Brock, now president and CEO of Launch Tennessee. “People who need clarity – to always go from step one to step two – can struggle with that. You need to be able to adapt.”
6. Successful entrepreneurs believe in themselves.
To chart into new territories requires confidence – and great entrepreneurs have it. They believe firmly that their ideas will work, that they can create something people will want or need. “I think entrepreneurs by and large are just bold. They make bold decisions where others are afraid to do it. They come up with bold solutions. You have to be willing to do things that haven’t been done before and not worry that they won’t work,” says Becherer.
This quality is about risk taking, but not risk taking at all costs. These entrepreneurs have done enough research to feel secure that 1) they have something valuable to offer and, 2) they can deliver it better that anyone else.
Plus, they always prepare themselves for the worst-case scenario. “The best entrepreneurs are really good at mitigating their risk,” says Becherer. “They have a back-up plan for how they will dig themselves out if the idea doesn’t work out.”
7. Successful entrepreneurs are resourceful.
Saving. Creating a business plan. Anticipating how you will fund things. Using assets carefully and creatively. These are all habits that entrepreneurs rely on to lay firm foundations for their businesses. Being a wise manager not only of your money, but of all the resources within your reach, can keep your company above ground when times get tough.
“It’s particularly important to learn how to preserve and budget cash, because as long as you have that, you can continue to operate,” says Becherer. “The big sales and profit will come eventually. But if you run out of cash, you’re out of business.”
8. Successful entrepreneurs trust their gut.
Great business people know that sometimes, logic has its limits. Computers and data can’t replace a heart and brain – there are just too many instances of good instincts completely trumping research. Some of the best entrepreneurs just “know” when something feels wrong or right. It’s an innate ability that can’t really be learned.
“It’s really hard to both predict and quantify this quality, but it’s true that some of the decisions I’ve made along my entrepreneurial journey came through my gut,” says Brock. “Sometimes it’s just not that time efficient to do that last 20% of the analysis and you have to be able to make a call.”
9. Successful entrepreneurs generate new ideas.
Businesses can’t settle down in one comfortable place forever. They have to keep a competitive edge, and that requires fresh ideas and new initiatives. Without losing sight of the primary missions, entrepreneurs should constantly be asking themselves questions like: “What’s next?,” “How can we get ahead?,” and “How can we improve?”
“Successful entrepreneurs are always looking for new ways to grow their businesses, but at the end of the day you can only do a few things well,” says Brock. “With your team you need to put your ideas on the table, have a healthy debate, and pick three to five that are the most important to focus on over the next year. It doesn’t mean that new things can’t come up. They just need to come up through a focused framework.”
10. Successful entrepreneurs can adapt.
If you want to be successful, you can’t just stick to one idea with an iron grip. Times change, markets adapt, and businesses have to adapt with them. Good business people make a habit of reaching out to professionals they respect for feedback. They are willing to listen to others and change their original plans if something just isn’t working.
“You’ve got to be coachable. I look for that as an investor,” says Brock. “I’ve found that for people who come off as inflexible and unwilling to consider changes, there typically isn’t a very happy ending. There are just too many other entrepreneurs out there with great ideas.”
11. Successful entrepreneurs demonstrate honesty & integrity.
Great entrepreneurs do what they say they are going to do. They don’t fudge numbers. Keeping your moral compass on track doesn’t just keep your conscious free of guilt. It ensures the long-term credibility of your business.
“I think you have to set your core values as a company and embed them in everything you do, whether they are explicitly stated or implicitly implied,” says Brock. “You also have to be able to walk away from people who don’t believe the same things – whether those people are employees, investors, or even customers.”
12. Successful entrepreneurs build a great team.
Everybody has weaknesses, so great entrepreneurs hire theirs. They form a superstar team of people with complementary skills and backgrounds, an industry force to be reckoned with. Understanding your areas of weakness – and hiring people who excel in those areas – can go a long way toward taking a business to the next level.
“Research shows that solo entrepreneurs can create jobs for themselves, but teams of entrepreneurs are the ones creating companies,” says Becherer. “When you add people, you have a much higher probability of success because you immediately multiply everything – skill sets, networks, etc. So while you may not be able to hire right away, if you can recruit someone to be your teammate you will probably fare far better.”
13. Successful entrepreneurs focus on the customer.
Great entrepreneurs know that business success is 100% dependent on customers, so they center everything around reaching them in the most effective manner possible. They get to know their customers and what they want, and then tailor their strategies accordingly. At the end of the day, they know it’s not about their products and services. It’s about seeing a need and meeting it well.
“At the end of the day, the only business ideas that work are the ones that satisfy customer needs and provide value,” says Becherer. “No matter how good you think your idea is, it won’t go anywhere if your customers don’t agree.”
14. Successful entrepreneurs follow up – constantly.
From answering the phone to returning emails, great entrepreneurs are accessible – and they encourage their employees to be the same way with clients and customers. Frequent, open, and reliable communication will help you win the trust of customers and keep them coming back year after year. A strong reputation can serve a business well for years to come.
Becherer says that in today’s world where so many businesses are beginning to focus on “customer intimacy,” it’s becoming even more important to get to know consumers and provide everything just the way they want it.
“I always say that you need to under promise and over deliver,” Becherer says. “If you go the extra mile to make sure that the particular thing you offer has some extra bells and whistles, you are going to set yourself apart from the competition.”
15. Successful entrepreneurs give back.
Successful entrepreneurs generously donate time and money to local causes, making the whole experience of running a business more rewarding. Charitable giving and volunteerism creates new opportunities to connect with the community around you. Plus, it gives entrepreneurs a chance to “pay forward” what has been given to them.
“It really is a balancing act, though,” says Brock. “Because the most important thing you can do for your community and your company is to be successful first. That, in turn, enables you to give back and be able to engage in philanthropy. So there is very much a virtuous circle of entrepreneurship.”
The UTC College of Business Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame celebrates the region’s entrepreneurial legacy, highlights the economic importance of business creation and provides entrepreneurial role models for students, alumni and the Chattanooga community.