Over the past couple years I have been fortunate enough to get the chance to work with some incredible entrepreneurs. These interactions, along with my own entrepreneurial experiences, have given me a lot of material on which to reflect when it comes to what makes for a great entrepreneur.
Many of the aspects of great entrepreneurs are binary to a certain extent - level of intelligence, risk tolerance, etc. Above a certain threshold and one has the potential to be a great entrepreneur. Below that threshold and they will never make it, or don’t even bother trying. I’m not really interested in these parts of entrepreneurship though as they are uncontrollable. I’m more interested in things that can be acquired and improved. And even in that category I’m not all that interested in what conventional wisdom says about being an entrepreneur - things like confidence, charisma, leadership, and non-consensus. All these are a bit cliche really. In thinking about what has really impressed me about some of the great entrepreneurs I’ve me, I’ve tried to articulate some of less discussed qualities that have stood out to me as more interesting, and more important, than the often-repeated platitudes
I think conviction is the most important attribute of great entrepreneurs for a very simple reason - if you don’t believe in what you’re doing, no one else will. But I think conviction goes deeper than a synonym for confidence. Conviction is the key to moving quickly, iterating, and ultimately discovering the right combination of variables. There are so many decisions to make every day that without conviction in the overall vision and in each individual decision progress will grind to a halt. In my experience, few things kill startups like lack of momentum and progress. Conviction is deep, unwavering belief in not only each decision, but in your ability to make the right decisions. There will be mistakes along the way but it is critical to never loose faith that you have the ability to figure it out. Conviction is also a manifestation of a sense of inevitability. Inevitability says that there is no way this company is not going to exist and thrive. It says that the right order of things includes the company. The best entrepreneurs I’ve met tell their story as an inevitable outcome, and from this they have an unshakable conviction in what they are doing. This inspires teams, investors, and customers in a way little else can.
#2 Work Like Your Life Depends On It
Hard work is required. That’s a given. But I think there are differences in how people approach it. You can work hard because it’s part of your personality. You can work hard as in spending endless hours at your desk. You can work hard in spurts. But to become one in the best in the world at what you do, you need to work like your life depends on it. Your approach to your work has to be all consuming and viewed like a fight for survival. Nothing can get in the way of getting stuff done, making process, and pushing your company forward. You cannot leave anything on the table. Anything and everything needs to be tried. Crazy ideas and long shots must be explored. At the end of the day there cannot be anything you should have done. The best entrepreneurs I’ve met view their work at elemental to their existence. Their visions and goals are as important to them as breathing. Viewing the world like this gives you superpowers. It pushes you to do things no one else will think of or try. It subsists you through the worst times imaginable. It makes you feel like you can tackle and accomplish anything. This isn’t a job or a project. This is survival.
#3 Be A Mad Scientist
My good friend Will Peng recently explained this concept to me and it has become my favorite way to classify how great entrepreneurs act. Will wrote a great post about the idea as geared towards creativity. I think the concept of a mad scientist is an instrumental attribute of entrepreneurs in an additional few ways.
First, for a mad scientist it is risker to not try something new than it is to try it. As Will says, they have a different risk profile and there is no choice but to stand up for what they believe in. There is no other option. I love this way of viewing entrepreneurs because it doesn’t position building a company as a choice. It doesn’t require a reason for pursuing a crazy idea. There never was a choice. The way mad scientists, and great entrepreneurs, view the world is that their idea must exist and that a world without it is materially worse off. If you think of something like this, if you have this level of conviction, then the only option is to dive in head first and not look back. They are typically alone in these options, but not only does that isolation not bother them, it is not even acknowledged.
Second, experimentation is essential to science just as it is to startups. Great entrepreneurs experiment and test in the search for the right answer just like scientists. The framework of the scientific method works just as well in the lab as it does in startups. Formulating a hypothesis based on your gut and available information and testing it with real data is how all great startups live. This iterative process drives not only big strategy decisions but day to day tactics. Experimentation not only helps get to the right answer, but it creates a mentality that is crucial to being a successful entrepreneur. While you have to put everything you have into your company, you cannot get too tied to any idea or strategy in particular. If you view everything as an experiment than everything is a test. If it goes well that’s great but if it doesn’t you simply move on to the next test without any hard feelings. There are too many low points in building a company so you must do what you can to take an outlook that limits the chances of preventable emotional distress.
Third, without a little bit of crazy you just get a regular scientist, not a mad scientist. It’s the same distinction between good and great entrepreneurs. Crazy opens up ideas and opportunities no one else will think of. Mad scientists, and great entrepreneurs, come up with, and completely believe in, things other people laugh at, ignore, or never even consider. You need to be living out there on the edge to really innovate on anything. Crazy may seem like a personality trait but I think it can be cultivated in a pretty straight forward way by simply allowing yourself to embrace the stuff you tend to immediately reject. We all have crazy ideas, and like any other skill, they will get better the most you use them. Instead of writing something off because it’s “too crazy”, put that idea into practice as an experiment and see what happens. Do this enough and it will become part of how you operate.
Fourth, the caricature of a mad scientist is someone obsessed with the most minute details. Everything needs to be precise and exact. The best entrepreneurs are equally obsessive over every single element of their companies. Nothing if overlooked and nothing is ignored. Pixels are scrutinized and strategies are analyzed and reanalyzed constantly. This behavior can of course become debilitating - i.e. analysis paralysis - but it’s a balancing act that needs to be mastered, and the best have figured it out.
#4 Focus On Small Wins
Not to personalize this too much, but as an entrepreneur I always had a hard time with this one. I always thought that caring about small wins was a form of embracing mediocrity. Why be happy about incremental progress when there is still so much more to do and so much more to strive for? It wasn’t until I saw entrepreneurs much more successful than me taking the time to celebrate the little wins that I realized it’s essential to maintaining motivation along the long haul. Everything gets tiring, no matter how passionate you are. But if you can get reenergized periodically then the long journey gets broken up into many smaller ones. In the end, a company, like life, is less about the big things and really just an accumulation of a bunch of little things. Getting these little things right, and celebrating them as the wins that they are, is how you breakdown seemingly insurmountable goals and keep up the energy to get to the end.
#5 Enjoy The Ride
Building a company can get really intense and heavy. Things can seem incredibly bleak at times. All the hours and hard work sometimes seems like it will all be for nothing. But the best entrepreneurs I’ve met do not get bogged down by all this. They not only take it in stride but they enjoy the ride. They find joy and happiness in the midst of all the struggle and craziness. I think a lot of this has to do with personality but I think it can also be learned and improved. I’ve noticed a large percentage of entrepreneurs mediate, workout constantly, or find other ways to take mental breaks from the day to day. To be able to enjoy the roller coster ride of startups you need to come at it with the right mentality, and to get this mentality you need to check out every once in awhile to gain perspective and calm your mind. Mindfulness is a bit of a buzzword these days but I think it does a good job of capturing the mental state you need to achieve to be able to be happy in the midst of the chaos that is starting a company. Like celebrating small wins, enjoying the ride gives entrepreneurs the stamina to keep high energy through the entire race, instead of burning out in the dark and tough middle bits.