by Jeff Solomon, co-founder of Markup Hero
Who hasn’t dreamt of startup stardom? We’ve all heard stories of founders with a seemingly simple idea eventually being worth millions in a successful IPO. It’s no tall tale – Drew Houston and Dropbox, Brian Chesky and Airbnb, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. The list goes on.
Most people can only wonder how they did it. And while some characteristics of successful startup entrepreneurs can’t be taught, there are many traits we can study.
So if you want to break free from the nine-to-five life, start being your own boss and have a shot at creating the next Microsoft, you’ll need to learn and practice certain entrepreneurial skills.
Entrepreneurship by the Numbers
A recent study about the characteristics of startup entrepreneurs indicates that 75% of them worked for someone else for more than 6 years before starting their business. Moreover, over 95% have a college degree, although Zuckerberg and Gates notoriously dropped out of Harvard. One thing is for certain, startup entrepreneurs work hard, an average of 66 hours per week vs. 47 hours for typical workers.
Now let’s take the stats a step further and dig into the underlying qualities of successful startup entrepreneurs. In this article, we’ll break down 10 of the most important traits and how to apply them to your own business.
#1 – They have Creativity as a Driving Force.
The entrepreneurs’ journey starts with an idea. Sometimes just a seed of an idea even. Good ideas come from being creative. And almost every successful entrepreneur has one thing in common – creative thinking.
Creative thinking means you look at problems, behaviors, and events in a unique way. Entrepreneurs with this skill have a knack for seeing things from different perspectives. They generally don’t take ideas for face value. In other words, they don’t assume something is one way because that’s the only way. Successful entrepreneurs can see opportunities that others don’t for this reason – they find the path that isn’t obvious.
Startups are launched every day, but most startups fail. This is largely due to a lack of creative thinking and startup entrepreneurs use this skill to create opportunities out of seemingly innocuous situations.
They possess a vision to identify a problem and find viable solutions to eliminate them. Look at the many creative entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates who changed the status quo. The sense of curiosity of entrepreneurs like these enables them to not only come up with creative ideas but transform how we interact with the world around us.
#2 – They are Fuelled by Passion.
Everyone is passionate about something. That’s one of the great characteristics of human beings. But some people are more passionate than others and startup entrepreneurs have the unique passion and energy needed to start a company from scratch and find a path to success.
Many startups are founded by someone who has a passion for the specific topic the company focuses on. This approach gives entrepreneurs an advantage because they understand the customer and come up with solutions that work. After all, when you’re building a product where you are the actual customer, you’re more likely to get it right.
Moreover, passionate entrepreneurs have a passion for “figuring things out”. The road to success is always bumpy. You need a certain resolve to navigate the ups-and-downs of startup life. This seemingly never wavering passion that startup entrepreneurs possess is the key to navigating hard times.
But don’t worry if you haven’t yet discovered your true passion. Start by focusing on what you’re interested in. Be curious about the products, solutions, and people in these categories. If you keep an open mind, you’ll soon discover the opportunities – there is no shortage of them.
So if you want to start a business, focus on your passions and keep these tips in mind:
- Problems can be found in the “why” people do what they do — so keep an eye on user behaviors.
- Problems are only worth solving if they are meaningful enough for people — so look for the most impactful issues for people.
Remember, passion is double-edged meaning you can be passionate about certain interests and you can have a passion that drives you to a goal. Successful entrepreneurs have both.
#3 – They’re Seemingly Fearless.
“The biggest risk is not taking any risk. In a world that’s changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.” – Mark Zuckerberg
When we think of entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg or Brian Chesky, the founder of Airbnb, we assume they must be fearless. The truth might surprise you. Successful entrepreneurs aren’t fearless, they just don’t let fear stop them from taking risks. And entrepreneurship sure has its fair share of risks and challenges.
Great entrepreneurs cultivate a mindset that gives them the confidence to take chances even when they can’t be certain of the results. They embrace uncertainty because they know the outcome, whether good or bad, will teach them something important. And they learn from it.
Building a startup is about measuring risks and rewards and making the best decision you can to minimize negative outcomes. Take the common startup dilemma, raising easy money from an unsophisticated investor or pushing for the strategic one. Successful entrepreneurs weigh the positives and negatives of each approach and can mitigate risk and make the right choice for a given business.
Another difficult decision founders find themselves in is choosing a marketing strategy. There is no shortage of marketing options, but there is almost always a limited budget. Successful entrepreneurs aren’t without fear in the face of this decision – paid advertising vs. SEO, content marketing vs. partnerships, social media vs. mass market – the list goes on. They evaluate options and assess the risks, make a decision, and never second guess themselves. That’s courage and confidence, not fearlessness.
So don’t fear the fear, embrace it, make the best decision you can, and just go.
#4 – Adaptable to Changes and Challenges.
One certainty every entrepreneur needs to accept is that nothing is certain. Successful entrepreneurs know this and can adapt to market changes and business challenges. They never rest on success – a startup labeled as revolutionary today might turn obsolete in a few years.
Although a good entrepreneur will always keep an eye on potential problems ahead, it is not always possible to foresee the future. Successful entrepreneurs are ready for change at any moment. So when unexpected roadblocks appear, they’re prepared to shift strategy or pivot product features to meet any challenge.
Being adaptable also means staying calm. It’s nearly impossible to navigate turbulent startup situations when you’re running around like a chicken with its head cut off. The most startup entrepreneurs know when to pause, take a breath, and re-focus energy on adapting to change.
Adaptability doesn’t just apply to unexpected challenges or changes in your market. The best entrepreneurs have adaptable skill sets. Entrepreneurs that can perform many different roles or job functions have an incredible edge. One day you might focus on digital marketing strategies. Another day you might be working on optimizing the customer support experience. And yet another working on financial modeling. The more skills you have as an entrepreneur, the more you can get done without extra resources or expenses.
#5 – Focused on the Goal.
An idea is just that, an idea. Ideas don’t turn into successful businesses on their own, that takes hard work and execution on the part of the entrepreneur. Successful founders know that execution starts by creating goals and breaking them into achievable milestones. This is the foundation that keeps entrepreneurs from getting caught up in the small things and stay focused on the big picture.
Following these steps can help you become “goal-oriented”:
- Prepare both short-term and long-term objectives for your startup
- Set up measurable checkpoints as you proceed with your venture
- Keep track of everything using tools like Notion or Asana
- Use data analysis tools to monitor the progress, optimize and make timely changes
A recent report by IBM shows that performance data can dramatically improve business performance, leading to 12x increased revenue. Visualizing data can tell a comprehensive narrative that spreadsheets simply can’t do.
So, tie your goals with data-driven milestones and optimize along the way!
#6 – They’re Persuasive.
Any business professional will tell you that good communication, both written and verbal, is an essential skill. For entrepreneurs, this requirement is even more important. As a startup founder, you’ll likely be interacting with many different groups of people – from investors to department heads, customers to marketing agencies, and everything in between. If you can’t communicate your ideas effectively, you’re going to be stuck lickity split.
The art of persuasion is something that some of the most successful entrepreneurs have nearly perfected. Take Steve Jobs. On more than one occasion he had the monumental task of convincing consumers that they needed something they’ve never imagined – a mini-computer in the palm of their hand for example. As a startup founder, it will fall on your shoulders to enroll people in your vision.
Ironically, investors are often some of the most skeptical big vision ideas, even though they regularly invest in startups of this type. But even consumers can have a tough time adopting new technologies or behavior changes. Being able to persuade people to see what you see is a critical leadership quality you’ll need to achieve success.
#7 – They Have Empathy.
Building a business is as much a listening exercise as it is a communication affair. Good entrepreneurs know when to speak and when to listen. And those particularly startup entrepreneurs can be empathetic to people around them. They hear different perspectives from co-workers and customers, then make informed decisions that make people feel empowered.
Empathetic entrepreneurs are more effective because they:
- Take consider input from many sources before making final decisions
- Can acknowledge their own mistakes and quickly learn from them
- Get teams to work at high together even in high-stress situations
- Build a culture of communication so people know they are making an impact
Being empathetic doesn’t just mean you listen to your employees. Empathy extends to customers, investors, partners, suppliers, and every other group a company needs to interact with. Moreover, empathy is not achieved in a silo. Successful startup entrepreneurs know how to collaborate with people and work together. And when you’re genuinely interested in listening to feedback from others, you are giving yourself a better chance to improve and grow.
#8 – They Take Action & Make Decisions.
An entrepreneur has to make tough decisions on the regular. As the leader of the startup, you’re responsible for taking input from wherever you can get it, but then being decisive and taking action.
Most startup entrepreneurs will tell you that doing nothing is worse than doing the wrong thing. In a 2016 shareholder letter, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos wrote, “most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70 percent of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90 percent, in most cases, you’re probably being slow.”
Bezos makes an important point about decision making, that most decisions are not permanent. He’d rather make a decision quickly with a fair amount of certainty vs. slowly with absolute certainty – which is of course impossible anyway.
Procrastination is the Achilles heel of many entrepreneurs. You must be decisive and action-oriented to keep the business moving forward. Even if you get it wrong on occasion, you’re likely to still be better off having moved faster – you can almost always go back and course correct.
#9 – They’re Resilient.
According to FastCompany, 75% of the startups fail. This statistic is not intended to dissuade you from starting a company. You’re an entrepreneur, starting companies is what you do. The point is that starting a company is much easier than building one that lasts. Be ready to face every outcome that comes with the entrepreneurs’ journey. As an entrepreneur, you should be able to accept failure. Resilience will allow you to face failure with courage and overcome challenges.
Incidentally, almost every entrepreneur has failed more than they’ve succeeded. Most will tell you that success teaches us very little – it’s failure that helps us learn. Don’t let the fear of failure hold you back. Instead, look at fear as a motivator rather than a blocker.
#10 – They’re Self-Motivated.
Being an entrepreneur can often be lonely, especially when you’re building a startup. There will be times when things just aren’t going your way. Successful entrepreneurs have a knack for self-motivation. They’re passionate and they have a fire inside that just won’t let them quit or rest on mediocrity.
But passion only takes you so far. There will always be circumstances that feel insurmountable or overwhelming. It’s in these moments that great entrepreneurs keep pushing themselves.
Often, you won’t be able to rely on your team, co-founders, or investors to “pump you up”. You’re going to have to find the motivation inside yourself. One of the easiest ways to keep yourself motivated is to make small and tangible goals for your startup. When these goals are fulfilled, make sure you’re there to celebrate them.
Wrapping it Up.
Building a successful startup is hard, but not impossible. The 10 characteristics of successful startup entrepreneurs outlined in this article could be the key inspiration you need to get unstuck.
One thing that you’ll notice about all of the qualities we’ve discussed is their inter-dependence on each other. In other words, each trait is enhanced by the other. So while it’s rare that someone possesses all these qualities from day one, they can be learned. Like anything, practice is the key. Most entrepreneurs have failed before they succeeded.
Don’t get discouraged. The beauty and satisfaction of being an entrepreneur are the journey more than the outcome. Embrace the journey and practice the skills and you will almost certainly succeed.
Jeff Solomon is currently co-founder of Markup Hero, a screenshot & annotation SaaS tool. He is a 5x founder of bootstrapped & venture-backed companies with several exits and a few fails under his belt. He is an avid writer and content marketer and has been teaching entrepreneurship for 10 years.