What would a ‘real’ entrepreneur be like?

Many beginning entrepreneurs think they have to be some kind of superman or superwoman in order to be successful. This superhero image of entrepreneurs might be a pat on their own back, but the painted picture is absolutely unrealistic. The truth is that there are many ways to succeed. There are many successful entrepreneurs who aren’t entrepreneurial at all.

What would a ‘real’ entrepreneur be like?

Column by Arjan van den Born

When I’m ask entrepreneurs about the qualities they are supposed to have, being the entrepreneur they are, an impressive range of qualities is listed every time. I’ll be told that a real entrepreneur, whatever that may be, has to be proactive, has a good self-esteem, is a born networker, innovates continuously, is constantly looking for new opportunities, is also a born salesman, encompasses an internal drive to perform, and, last but not least, has a sheer inexhaustible endurance. I would be tired from stretch.

This superhero image of entrepreneurs might be a pat on their own back, but the painted picture is absolutely unrealistic. The truth is that there are many ways to succeed. There are many successful entrepreneurs who aren’t entrepreneurial at all. There are inventors who make big bucks. Not because they are that entrepreneurial, but because their invention offers an added value. Let’s take Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as an example, who foremost used to be a good programmer. Certain doctors are so skilled that patients would love to be operated by them and are willing to pay considerable amounts of money. These surgeons aren’t entrepreneurial in the conventional way, but definitely successful financially. Entrepreneurial success is in both cases based on professionalism and creativity. In the case that your knowledge and skills are so unique that clients recognize them, you don’t have to be a born entrepreneur at all in order to be successful. I would dare to state that a mayor portion of all successful entrepreneurs are just successful professionals. Their success is based on their expertise. Not only is it true for Ferran Adrià, the famous chef of former 3-star restaurant El Bulli, but just as well for any expert baker or butcher in your street. It is true love for craftmanship that creates successful entrepreneurs.

So you don’t have to be a born entrepreneur in order to be successful. You also don’t have to be a born networker or salesperson. When you choose a clear niche, your reputation and the quality of your work will be much more important than your networking qualities. The Schumpeterian idea of creative destruction in which the entrepreneur always innovates is false as well. You don’t have to innovate to be successful. Maybe in some sectors, with many technological innovations, yet most independent entrepreneurs “over-innovate”; they are so into product development that the client doesn’t know what to expect anymore. Even ambition and endurance aren’t necessary premises for success; there are countless examples of entrepreneurs who had their success just falling in their lap. We also greatly underestimate the luck factor. When you study the success of many successful entrepreneurs, you’ll find that in many cases a single –usually coincidental– decision has lead to the company’s mayor breakthrough.

In my opinion, entrepreneurship can clearly be compared with professional sports. You can’t say that you have to have just one certain quality in order to be a successful athlete. Some athletes are fat (Sumo wrestlers), other athletes are thin (Haile Gebrselassie). Some top athletes are short (Wesley Sneijder), others tall (Michael Jordan). For many professional athletes their sport (basketball, baseball, swimming, etc.) determines which qualities are important to be successful. To entrepreneurs the product and the market determines which qualities are required to be successful. Both for professional athletes as well for entrepreneurs endurance is of main importance, though to some people it just drops in their lap by playfully learning and innate talent (Cruyff).

How come many people still believe that you have to be a born entrepreneur in order to be successful? This opinion is stubborn, however scientific research has showed us over and again that the relation between personality and entrepreneurial success is only very limited. I think there are two reasons: First of all, people like to believe in a mythical heroic personality possessing almost godly powers. This is shown by Burton Malkiel us in his book “A Random Walk Down Wall Street”. Secondly, our image of successful entrepreneur has been severely disrupted, because financial gain has become the measure for success; mostly entrepreneurs and directors (!) who show off their financial success are visible ones in the media. Often possessing a huge ego, who love to believe it is their personal effort that makes the organization they work for financially successful.

Hold on, I didn’t say that making money is completely unimportant. I’m too much of an entrepreneur myself to say so, yet I sometimes regret that only these big “entrepreneurs” are visible role models. Today’s youth sometimes receives a warped image of what success is. I would like countless small, mid-size and large entrepreneurs, who combine financial and personal success, to be far more visible. Hence, we would see much clearer that many ways lead to success and that success is multidimensional. Almost everybody could be a successful entrepreneur, but he or she has to pick the market and the product that fits to him or her.