There of course is no one-size-fits-all textbook definition of what makes for a successful entrepreneur. If you look at the greats, they really all have their own styles – sometimes quirky or eccentric, sometimes quiet and unassuming, sometimes boisterous and unrestrained.
Having said that, after a few decades of experience in the business world, and having spent the past six years at Virtuzone working with startup founders across the UAE, I’ve picked up on a few particular traits or characteristics – or whatever we wish to call them – that I have come to believe are invaluable to an entrepreneur’s successful long-term journey.
Now I’m not suggesting you have to exhibit these, but I will suggest that having some or all of them will actually make you a better businessperson. Why? Because these traits help you stay focused on what matters and help you get through the hard times with grace. They also help you connect with yourself and the people you need to lead, and, ultimately, stay balanced through this most arduous journey from startup to business success.
Without further adieu, let’s have a look.
1. They keep things simple
Not just in business, but in every aspect of their lives, from how they eat to their workouts to what they wear (Mark Zuckerberg and Elizabeth Holmes are two examples of today’s business leaders following in Steve Jobs’ footsteps of wearing the same outfit every day). Why? Well, on the personal front we are all struggling to keep up with our to do lists. If we crowd or complicate things, we have less time. Any chance to shave off minutes here and there – which quickly adds up to hours over the course of the week – and we suddenly have a major advantage.
On the business side of things it’s not just time savings but also strategy: plans are easier to understand, metrics are easier to measure, and perhaps most importantly, a simple concept is much easier to buy into than a complex one – by colleagues, clients and prospects alike. What’s more, as your business gains traction, a simple idea is far easier to roll out than a complicated one.
The fact is that in this increasingly digital world which we inhabit, too much is coming at us and our time is stretched paper-thin because of it. Without simplifying so as to cut through the noise of the modern world, it can be incredibly difficult to decide what tasks take priority – and how best to tackle them. When we are overwhelmed with things to do, it is simply too hard to keep a clear mind.
Ultimately, simplicity is all about staying in control, and hand on heart, how many of you entrepreneurs out there can say you are not (total) control freaks?
2. They are tough
This one won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who has spent time working alongside top entrepreneurs. They are nothing if not persistent, resilient, and unrelenting.
Pressure levels and workloads that would make many others give up before truly getting started are all par for the course for entrepreneurs, and far from complain, they actively relish the challenge. Sure, they may mention the long hours and the stress, but for the most part it is with a sense of pride and not because they want you to pity them. Truth be told, most entrepreneurs worth their salt want it to be hard, because they know that nothing worth having comes easy, and those daily struggles and hardships serve as reminders of the success that lies ahead for those who don’t quit.
Entrepreneurship isn’t without its fair share of hits – be it failed product launches, unsuccessful pitches or losing clients – and it is here once again that entrepreneurs must show incredible levels of toughness to stay focused on achieving their goals. Rather than taking those hits personally, or seeing them as a reason to retreat, the tough entrepreneur steps right over them and keeps on charging.
Toughing it out during the hard times is an absolute prerequisite for success. Nothing happens overnight, and the financial insecurity, personal sacrifices, doubts and late nights are all simply part of the journey. Without a thick-skin, however, that journey will be an incredibly short one.
3. They are patient
As the old saying goes – patience is a virtue – and nowhere is that more true than in the world of business. On the long road to success, entrepreneurs must display extreme levels of patience to keep at bay their perfectly natural emotions – fear of failure, doubts about whether they have what it takes, and, let’s be honest, wanting it all right now. There are countless examples of businesses that have fallen by the wayside due to impatience, be it through trying to force growth too quickly, going to market too early, or cutting and running when the going gets tough.
That’s not to say patience comes easy to the entrepreneur. It’s a constant internal battle. The classic analogy of a duck on water is particularly appropriate when it comes to how an entrepreneur has to carry or check him or herself in order to stay in control in this respect. Under the water the duck’s feet move wildly to keep the duck gliding forward. That’s the brain of the entrepreneur, always working at 100%, always pushing for more. Meanwhile, the duck’s body glides effortlessly across the water, showing no indication of the hard work or strain that is happening underneath. This is in effect the entrepreneur keeping his or her patience in check – and the preferred image to portray to the outside world.
Most entrepreneurs are patient in a forced manner. It’s almost a survival instinct. They know that without patience it will be too hard emotionally, because despite wanting it to be otherwise, there are simply many things out of our control, and trying to force the clock never works.
4. They are naturally empathetic
This is a trait that I truly wish more people had, not only in the business world, but in all walks of life. Empathy – the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand (or at least make a sincere attempt to understand) their emotions and feelings and perceptions – is so important in how we interact with one another.
All entrepreneurs sit at the heart of a network of people that they need to understand: employees, business partners, mentors, investors, shareholders and of course, clients. By displaying empathy, entrepreneurs are better able to get in tune with what each of these stakeholders requires, and not only deliver it, but also demonstrate to each of them that their interests and feelings are both understood and appreciated.
It is only through this level of connection that we are able to intuitively understand how and why an employee or colleague or client may react to any decision we make. That is, we may know it is the right thing to do, but taking into account how they may view it and how it may affect them will help us better roll out that idea or carry out the work with them.
Empathy is in particular of huge importance when it comes to leadership, as the Harvard Business Review recently highlighted. In his paper, “What Makes a Leader”, Dr Daniel Goleman speaks of the need for great leaders to display empathy as part of an intelligent decision-making process. He explains that sympathy is not enough, and it is empathy that allows leaders to improve their companies in “subtle” and “important ways”.
5. They manage fear
Studies have shown that we are all in fact born with only two innate fears: falling and loud noises. As we make our way through life, however, we add to that list – a whole lot. Everything from a fear of clowns to snakes to flying to spiders to public speaking to – wait for it entrepreneurs – failure.
What can we say about fear of failure other than the following? At some point, successful entrepreneurs must let go of it. Famous film director James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar, etc.) says it perfectly: “Failure is an option, but fear is not.”
Fear is like a prison of sorts for the entrepreneur. It leads to “safe” decisions far too much of the time, and it waters down ambitions and aspirations. The majority of entrepreneurs absolutely understand that they are going to take big hits from time-to-time, however, the successful ones do not live in fear of those hits and how big they will be. They view failures as neither a positive or a negative, but rather, as part of the journey.
Ultimately, fearlessness is also somewhat based in the practical. You have to believe in what you’re doing, which is based on you bringing the right experience to the game, having the right team and market knowledge, and so on. You can’t, in other words, fool yourself into thinking that the world wants what you are bringing to market. To a certain extent, you need to know it, because when you truly believe, your fear is mitigated. It’s similar to a boxer going into the ring unprepared, or a smaller army going up against a bigger and more skilled one.
Entrepreneurs view failures as neither a positive or a negative, but rather, as part of the journey.
So heck with fear, really. The only fear any entrepreneur should have is that of finishing their career having been too scared to go for it.
Strengthening your entrepreneurial self
Can you cultivate the above? Sure you can. I’d also go so far as to say that any seasoned entrepreneur will be able to relate to these five traits (again, if we can call them that) because over the years in building their businesses they have had to learn to keep things simple, be tough and patient, learn true empathy, and manage those fears. It is part and parcel of the entrepreneur’s journey.
I’ll stress again, though, that there is no one-size-fits all approach, and in no way is this a definitive list. Nor are these “must haves” or things that you can entirely conquer. They are very much “emotional” challenges that will be with you throughout the entire journey of business (and life) and it is more a matter of doing the best you can with them rather than permanently mastering them outright.