By most definitions of the term, an entrepreneur is someone who starts a new business, incorporating innovative changes to existing products, services, business models, and creating new markets. Yet very few achieve that great aspiration of really driving economic, social, and environmental changes on a global scale.
What does it take to get to that level? One way of identifying the right characteristics and approaches is to take a hard look at entrepreneurs who have done it. Peter Andrews and Fiona Wood, in their classic book “Überpreneurs” have profiled 36 leading candidates for this category, to extract a set of common characteristics. Here are some recognizable entrepreneurial examples I like, just from the technology space:
- Driven by an epic ambition. Each of them has seen and seized opportunities for change, sensed the way forward, garnered the necessary resources, and pursued their dreams, regardless of the odds. All of them, in the late Steve Jobs’ words, “push the human race forward.” He agreed with Mark Twain on keeping away from people who like to belittle your ambitions.
- Opportunistic and visionary. They must be constantly on the lookout for new ideas and intuitively grasping their potential implications, seeing and seizing opportunities for change. Bill Gates telephoned Ed Roberts, the man behind the first microprocessor, to offer a BASIC software package that he and Paul Allen had not yet written because he knew that one day there would be “a computer on every desk and in every home.”
- Innovative yet pragmatic. Überpreneurs are willing and able to jump organizational, cultural, and geographic boundaries as they sense their way toward novel but practical solutions. Mark Zuckerberg envisioned Facebook as a virtual social network built on a lifetime of friendships, while offering advertisers a powerful and targeted marketing tool.
- Persuasive and empowering. Offering irresistible investment propositions and attracting talented and loyal followers is key, as they garner the resources to pursue their goals. Larry Page of Google piqued the interest of venture capitalist John Doerr with an outrageous revenue estimate of “$10 billion,” a target that was met in less than ten years.
- Focused and confident. All are indomitable spirits who assume total control and drive full steam ahead toward the realization of their dreams. Richard Branson once said “My interest in life comes from setting myself huge, apparently unachievable challenges and trying to rise above them.” “I have always lived my life by making lists … Each day I work through these lists, and that sequence of calls propels me forward.”
- Resilient and courageous. Taking bold but calculated risks is the norm, learning from their mistakes, and thriving on change and uncertainty as they upend your world, regardless of the odds. Jeff Bezos of Amazon once said that if you are going to do large-scale invention, you have to be willing to fail, think long-term, and be misunderstood for long periods of time.
- Consistently produce results. All of them have created massive new capital, be it financial or technological, social or spiritual. All of them have transformed the condition of mankind – for the better. Elon Musk is a South African born Canadian-American engineer, business magnate, investor, and inventor who founded and built PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla Motors, and is still going strong.
The real question is how do we produce more of these? I don’t see anything genetic here, as these have come from some very diverse backgrounds, with the normal mix of middle-class, upper, and lower economic environments.
My best suggestion, like the authors of Überpreneurs, is that we just teach aspiring entrepreneurs the facts, help them build their networks, supply them with some resources, and simply get out of their way. If you have a better suggestion, I’ll be happy to learn from it.