Do You Have What It Takes?

“People mix up entrepreneurship with risk-taking… An entrepreneur is a risk-minimizer, an opportunity seeker.” Peter Farrell

Many ETR readers are entrepreneurial wannabes – stuck in jobs they hate and dreaming of having their own exciting businesses. According to best-selling business author Seth Godin, entrepreneurial wannabes come in a number of varieties:

  • “The middle manager who believes he can go out and make it on his own
  • “The career-changer who is going to open a pet store because she loves dogs
  • “The restaurant chef who is going to open up his own restaurant
  • “The accountant leaving a big firm to start his own tax service
  • “The technology maven with a great idea
  • “The retiree who wants to buy a small store”

Most of these wannabes never achieve their dream. Rather than take the steps needed to start a successful business, they devote all their spare time to learning about entrepreneurship and preparing for the big day that never comes.

I think about PG, one of the dozens of wannabes I know. When we recently talked about this sensitive subject – why she has never taken action to start her business, even though she is well-prepared to do so – she said, “I worry that I don’t have what it takes.”

When I asked her what she meant by that, she drew a blank. “I don’t know,” she said. “Like if I have the right personality. Or if I have the right kind of mind for it. Or the right kind of emotional intelligence. That sort of thing.”

That got me thinking: Is there such a thing as having “what it takes” when it comes to starting your own business?

In Seth Godin’s book If You’re Clueless About Starting Your Own Business, he says it’s a myth that there is one entrepreneurial “type.”

“Bill Gates is an entrepreneur, but so is the single mom who runs a typing service out of her home. While the media has glamorized the macho, take-no-prisoners approach to growing businesses into billion-dollar companies, the fact is that most jobs are created by the tiny ‘mom and pop’ start-ups that are everywhere.”

But Godin does believe that successful entrepreneurs share certain traits. And he provides a 25-question quiz to determine how many of those traits you have. The most important, he says, are:

  • A positive, committed attitude so you can stick with it through the “change, insecurity, and indecision” that buffet every new business
  • A natural love of challenge so you will have the energy and enthusiasm to handle the demands you will inevitably face
  • The ability to manage a lot of stress and work at a high energy level
  • The willingness to take responsibility
  • A preference for being in charge rather than following orders
  • A sense of excitement and urgency about growth and change
  • The ability to sell yourself and your business

All of those characteristics seemed sensible to me, so I took the test. Considering how many profitable dollars the dozens of businesses I’ve started are raking in, I expected to score 100. But, in fact, I scored 79.

According to Godin, my 79 means that it’s very risky for someone like me to start a business. “You possess some entrepreneurial traits,” he says, “but probably not to the degree necessary to buck the daunting odds. If your score on the last 15 questions was 15 or below (which it was), your risk is even greater. Keep working for someone else.”

Interesting, don’t you think?

A colleague of mine – the guy who recommended Godin’s book to me – scored very highly on the test. And he is, indeed, a “natural” entrepreneur. However, he has not been able to build businesses that last. He starts one and, because he is smart and aggressive, it works well for a time. Then something happens and it falls apart.

While I admire his many talents, I can see that being a natural entrepreneur – the personality that Godin’s test is looking for – is in many ways his biggest barrier to success.

The natural entrepreneur is good at coming up with ideas, but not so good at following up on them. “I’m an idea person,” such entrepreneurs will tell you. “I’m not good with details.”

In saying that, these people are suggesting that the ability to come up with ideas is more important than the skill of implementing them. But as Robert Ringer says in Action!, no idea has any value until it is carried out. The secret of success in business is the ability to combine innovation and implementation.

If, like my friend PG, you have been putting off the decision to strike out on your own because you don’t know if you have “what it takes,” consider the case I am making here: If having what it takes means having the classic entrepreneurial personality, you may be better off with the personality you have.

Embrace the fact that you like security and regularity and order, because later on, when you do get your business going, you will be able to use that to build a stable business for yourself and your employees.

“Okay,” you say. “But how do I get out of this cycle I’m in? This cycle of dreaming and reading and planning my business but never actually jumping into it?”

Here is a quick outline of what you should do:

  • Accept the fact that you are not a “natural” entrepreneur. Be happy about that, because your fear of taking risks and your instinctive desire for stability will work in your favor.
  • Get someone to act as your mentor – a successful business owner who is willing to encourage you to take the steps you have to take.
  • Don’t even think about quitting your job until your business is proven and profitable. That’s not your nature. Instead, plan a strategy that makes sense for the “chicken entrepreneur” that you are. That strategy should include the following:
  1. Make a final decision about which business you want to start. Recognize uncertainty as a way to avoid action. Don’t fret that you might pick the “wrong” business. Just pick something.
  2. Get a full- or part-time job in the industry you want to be in, in the marketing department if possible. Learn everything you can about how that business sells its products.
  3. Once you understand how the marketing works, see if you can start an Internet-based version of your business. If your business doesn’t have an Internet application, come up with another way to test the waters – maybe by selling your products at flea markets or offering your services through related businesses.
  4. Read Ready… Fire… Aim, my next book on entrepreneurship. That will give you the details of exactly what you need to do to take your business from inception to $100 million and beyond.

Most important, take action. A lot of things related to starting your own business may scare you (which is perfectly fine), but you won’t accomplish anything if you don’t move forward. Even if your first step is a small one – like setting up a simple website or scheduling an informational interview with a bigwig in your field – do something to get your new venture off the ground.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]