What It Takes to Be a Successful Entrepreneur
As someone who aspires to be an entrepreneur (or rather, work for myself), I’ve always been fascinated by people in business, technology, sports, entertainment, and/or creative industries who seem to embody the kind of personality that enables them to succeed. It wasn’t until I made a conscious effort to learn more about entrepreneurs from all types of industries that I soon realized how little I knew about the struggles of entrepreneurs.
To be an entrepreneur requires a lot more than a certain type of personality. It has very little to do with upbringing and more to do with persistence, passion, dedication and the ability to handle rejection and failure with utmost humility.
These are some of the lessons that I’ve gained in the past month learning about entrepreneurs, from listening to the entire 2020 lineup of the How I Built This podcast. Hosted by Guy Raz, HIBT interviews entrepreneurs from all disciplines about their journey towards success. 113 episodes and 80+ hours later, I realized there is no ‘ideal’ image or type of person who is most likely to succeed as an entrepreneur — rather, there are commonalities across most, if not all, of the entrepreneurs interviewed on the show.
Below are the 13 most common traits from the world’s most successful entrepreneurs and who they are.
1. Most of them had no prior knowledge or experience about their product and/or service.
Brandon Beck & Marc Merrill became friends when they met at a summer camp in high school, bonded through a shared love of video games. Later, they ended up at the same college and became roommates. After college, they remained friends. Perhaps out of curiosity or determination, they decided to form a business together — Riot Games. They had an inkling that the future of video games is a ‘freemium’ model — where games were free to play but people would purchase certain things, called skins, within the game, allowing them to be monetized. Neither one of them had technical skills or experience. So they focused on hiring the best team they could possibly hire, and together, developed one of the most popular PC games of all time, League of Legends. Turns out, their inkling was right.
“We believed that people would try it if it’s free and buy it if it’s great.”
2. They got rejected ALOT.
Tim Ferriss, author and podcaster, got rejected 26 out of 27 times when he was shopping around for publishers for his book, The 4-Hour Workweek in 2006. The main reason? He was a never-published-before, unknown author. The one publisher that did take a chance on him was right. His book ended up on the New York Times bestseller list for four years in a row, making it one of the most successful business productivity books of all time.
Ever since then, Tim has published four additional books and started his own podcast, The Tim Ferriss Show, one of the most popular podcasts to date.
“I’ve brought myself to the brink of destruction many times.”
3. The majority of them are highly focused, obsessed with detail type pf people.
Dave Anderson, founder of Famous Dave’s BBQ, had an obsessive focus on detail. When he started his business, he wanted to have the best barbecue place in town. At the time, this was Hayward, WI in 1994. So he studied the art of barbecuing with great fervor to ensure that everything would fall into place. The result: he took a family love of barbecue to great heights — he had lines out the door during the first year of operation.
Dig deeper, and you’ll find that Dave’s journey was not without challenges. He grew up with undiagnosed ADHD; he struggled in school. Prior to founding Famous Dave’s BBQ, he had a terrarium business, where he lost a lot of money, so much that he could not afford to buy his infant son milk. “Back then, I was digging through the seat cushions to find money to buy my son milk. It was tough,” he said. Later, while working on building Dave’s BBQ off the ground, he developed a drinking problem — it got so bad that his family staged an intervention. That intervention led him to go into treatment, after which he was able to focus more on his business.
“I always tell people, life is not always on top of the mountain; it’s the valleys and it’s the struggles that you have to come back from, where you learn things. I think that’s how you grow.”
4. They all had a business partner or two.
To be an entrepreneur (or start a business) means realizing that you cannot take on the endeavor by yourself. All of the entrepreneurs on the show understood this, and as a result, chose a business partner (or two) to help them get it off the ground. A lot of them chose a family member, a friend, a spouse, or a colleague whose skills complement theirs.
One of the longest lasting friendship-turned-partnership is the one between Ben Cohen & Jerry Greenfield, founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. In the late 1970s, they took a risk — a big one — by opening an ice cream shop in Burlington, VT after taking a correspondence course in ice cream making. As business partners, they had complementary skills. Ben was more spontaneous and entrepreneurial, while Jerry was more practical and simple. Together, Jerry made the ice cream and Ben did the tasting. And together, they marketed their store and products so well that Time magazine called them “the best ice cream in the world” in 1981.
“We were really bad at portion control. We wanted to keep people happy.”
5. Many of them are not natural salespeople.
While it’s true that some of the entrepreneurs did work in sales, being able to “sell” their product or service was a skill that they learned along the way. Many of them did eventually land at the investor’s table, pitching their idea to venture capital, often being the only woman in the room, or a person of color.
When Tony joined Zappos in the late ‘90s, we were living in an era where people were reluctant to buy shoes online. He knew that and worked on a plan to revolutionize the shoe buying process — by focusing vehemently on customer service. He knew that if you could win a customer over on the phone, they would buy no matter what. He was right. By focusing the company’s mission on exceptional customer service, it changed people’s buying behaviors and created a sense of trust. That’s ultimately what customer service is all about.
“When you want your brand to stand for something or have a purpose…. You do things that are nonsensical, that your competitors wouldn’t do.”
6. Many of them had a learning disability and/or were troublemakers.
Perhaps the most endearing story comes from Jo Malone, founder of Jo Malone London, a line of luxury fragrances, that speaks to the nature of resilience. Jo grew up in the 1960s, in a working class suburb of England and lived in public housing with her family. She had a severe case of dyslexia that went undiagnosed. School was a big struggle for her, so she left when she was 16 to take care of her mother, who later had a nervous breakdown. Tensions arose between the two women when in her early 20s, she moved back home to help with a skincare business that her mom had started. They had a major blowout, and ultimately Jo decided to leave. By the time she was 24, she had taken on her mother’s debt.
Despite failures in academia, Jo knew that she had a keen sense of smell, something that she took seriously and drawing upon her experience with the skincare line, started a fragrance business with her husband, Gary. They elicited enough excitement about the products that they had lines out the door by the time they opened their storefront in 1995. Within a year, they hit their revenue goal, without any investors.
“You have to create the buzz, you have to create the voice, you have to create the want ability.”
7. Many have failed at other things in life.
As a kid, Michael Kirban, founder of Vita Coco, weren’t very good in school, due to his ADHD and dyslexia. He was told that he would never amount to anything. His goal was to get C’s. His parents split up when he was nine, and he went to live with his father, who owned a roller skating rink. Later on, his father dabbled in other types of businesses, including vacation rentals, where he helped out. Therefore, he always knew that risk taking was in his genes.
After a failed attempt at college, he held random jobs. Then he went to Brazil and discovered coconut water and that was the beginning of his business journey. The idea was easy — to bring coconut water to the United States to sell. But legal issues arose, the main one being distribution, and later, a lawsuit from a competitor that taught him about humility and loss. Despite his failures, he continued the business and emerged as a top-selling coconut water brand in the U.S.
“I was told quite a bit as a kid that I’m never going to be successful. So what’s the worst that I can do- fail, like everyone thought I could or would? I think that sparks a little bit of the risk taking needed to be an entrepreneur.”
8. They all had a day job prior to founding their company.
Prior to founding their company, method soap, Adam Lowry & Eric Ryan, two childhood friends who grew up in the same neighborhood amidst the auto industry boom in Grosse Pointe, MI, had regular day jobs. Adam was doing research on climate change and Eric had a job in advertising. It wasn’t until their serendipitous reunion on an airplane that reignited their friendship, and together, they decided to form a cleaning products company that focuses on natural, environmentally friendly ingredients in eye-catching bottles. They even went so far to ensure the ingredients weren’t toxic by having Eric drink the bottle!
With cleaning products, Adam & Eric saw an opportunity to change people’s minds — that cleaning products can be pretty and functional at the same time. As a result, they dispelled the notion that “green doesn’t clean” and turned it into one of the hottest cleaning brands on the market.
“There’s no such thing as low interest categories, only low interest brands.” –Eric Ryan
“You don’t need to figure out what you want to do with your life. You just need to figure out what to do next.” — Adam Lowry
9. A lot of them came from working class and/or immigrant families.
When you grow up in a motel like Shazi Visram did, you learn a little bit about business. Shazi’s parents were Indian immigrants who operated a convenience store in Canada first; later, they moved to the United States and bought a motel, where she and her family lived for many years. Despite having parents who were small business owners, Shazi never planned on being an entrepreneur. She went to Columbia University with the intention of becoming an artist.
It wasn’t until she ran into a friend who was a mother in 2003 when she learned that new parents wanted a different kind of baby food for their infants and toddlers — food that was healthy, organic, and wholesome, not in a jar. Thus, Happy Family Organics was born. She began her journey with no experience in food. Her first try at baby food in frozen cubes was a failure — it was only when she pivoted to rice cereal and food pouches that her company became a success.
“I think you make your own luck by showing up, fighting for what you believe in, and being there when those opportunities do show up.”
10. Many of them experienced a traumatic event when they were young.
Tope Awotona, founder of the online scheduling service Calendly, grew up comfortably middle class in Lagos, Nigeria. But when he was 12 years old, his father was killed suddenly in a carjacking incident, leaving him behind with his mother, who was strict. As a result, he experienced trauma, lost his appetite and became an insomniac. Later on, they moved to the United States, where he attended college at the University of Georgia. In college, he had a job as a door-to-door salesman, where he quickly discovered that he enjoyed the sales process and was good at it. The idea of entrepreneurship lingered on his mind for years, but he kept his day job selling software for technology companies.
It wasn’t until he ran into a problem setting up meetings with multiple business executives that he came up with the idea for Calendly. But prior to that, he had started two businesses that failed miserably — and he lost a lot of money and passion as a result. However, with scheduling meetings, he realized a lot of services were designed for brick-and-mortar businesses, and he wanted to make it easier for people to schedule meetings. Calendly became his ultimate passion project.
“The key to success is the execution, not so much the idea.”
11. None of them were motivated by money.
When you live in a rural area like Mike Radenbaugh of Rad Power Bikes did and your high school is 16 miles away, you had to figure out a way to get to school every day. Your parents couldn’t drive you to school — they had their own things to worry about. So Mike came up with a solution — to revamp old mountain bikes and turn it into electric bikes. A little trial and error later, he found himself a business owner right out of high school. Besides a fascination with motor parts, he was also motivated by the opportunity to provide ease of transportation for the rest of the world. He knew what it felt like to not be able to get around, and he wanted to give more people the freedom to travel as they wish.
“It’s not just transportation; it’s health and wellness as well.”
12. They all knew how to take advantage of an opportunity.
Katia Beauchamp, founder of Birchbox, a monthly beauty subscription service, took a bet when she opened for business in 2010. At the time, people got beauty samples for free, from makeup counters and stores. But Katia was convinced that people would pay for the samples because she saw an opportunity for a trend that was on the rise — curation and customization. Even if people didn’t know what they want, they still want someone to choose for them. Hence, the idea behind Birchbox — you get a box full of samples of brands that you would never otherwise have found for yourself. And if you like the products, then you can go on their website and buy the full-size version. That was how they made money.
Today, the idea of curation and customization is still hot. Through Birchbox, a lot of people have been introduced to new brands, new products, and new loves. A year after founding the company, Birchbox raised $10 million in venture capital. Later, the concept proved so successful that within two years, it reached $40 million in revenue.
“What a scary life to not know what you’re capable of. That’s terrifying.”
13. Most importantly, every single one of them had a problem they wanted to solve.
Justin Gold, founder of Justin’s Nut Butters, a popular brand of almond butter, had a problem. He was a vegetarian who had trouble finding nut butters that he liked. At the time, the market was dominated by Skippy and Jiff. He wanted something different — an almond butter. Because he couldn’t find anything in his local stores in Colorado, he decided to make his own. Over the course of a year, and a lot of experimentation in his kitchen, he developed an almond butter that tasted good to him. He labeled it “Justins” and soon discovered that his roommates were eating it with great enthusiasm. Soon, a lot of people began telling him that he should turn it into a business. So he did. The rest is history.
“I was always positive. I was always thinking that this was going to work. I just didn’t know how or when.”
In short, to become a successful entrepreneur, one must:
- Learn to accept failure as part of the process.
- Hard work + determination = grit. Keep going.
- Remember that you will be rejected A LOT.
- Also, many people will try to talk you out of it.
- Know when to give up and when to continue.
- Make sure you have a business partner, and pick the right one.
- A lack of money should not be a deterrent — you can always fundraise.
- Have a solid, real problem that you want to solve.
- Most importantly, don’t quit your day job…yet.