There is an unfortunate tendency to view entrepreneurs as born, not made. If you haven’t earned thousands selling sweets in primary school and made your first six figure exit while still in your teens, then the start-up life isn’t for you.
The reality is very different. Many people only become entrepreneurs in the middle or later stages of their careers, having experienced what the corporate world has to offer, and maybe having established the financial cushion to take a little risk. And for many, entrepreneurship is about making a positive organisational or social impact, leading new initiatives and transforming current practices.
Even the most high-profile entrepreneurs display a remarkable variation in personality and background. It raises the question what qualities they have in common, and whether these can be learned.
"When we speak with successful entrepreneurs and hear their stories, one thing that inevitably comes up is persistence, believing in what they do. It’s a sense of purpose and internal drive to make a change in a particular place," says Dimo Dimov, professor at the Bath School of Management’s new online Entrepreneurship Management and Innovation MSc programme, which aims to flip the traditional idea of the MBA on its head to reflect the pace of modern business development.
Fortunately, there’s ample evidence from serial entrepreneurs that you don’t need to have had a lifelong vocation to start your own business or otherwise blaze new trails. Indeed, spending time with other entrepreneurs and discussing your ideas in a structured, stimulating and supporting environment can be a great tool for development.
For that to happen, however, it’s important to clear your own mental barriers to starting a business, adds Dimov.
"A lot of people focus on evaluating the risk in a new business, but because we don’t know how it will develop, this becomes a very difficult, and actually quite counterproductive analytical exercise.
"One way of looking at it is to be clear about the downside, the worst that can happen, and make sure it’s affordable to you. Then you can shift the way you think about risk and the money you’re prepared to put into it," says Dimov.
An experimental mindset
The main reason new businesses fail is that there’s no market for the product or service they’re providing, but this doesn’t mean that successful entrepreneurs are just the ones lucky enough to have stumbled on a big idea.
"There are no small ideas. Every idea has the potential to be a big idea, but the challenge is you can’t really tell at the start, so curiosity, experimentation and being proactive are all very important," says Dimov.
These aren’t just ingrained personality traits, but mindsets you can adopt. Much of it revolves around the idea of failing, which Dimov says goes back to the classic tale of Thomas Edison, who famously tried 1,000 different ways to design the first light bulb. "He didn’t fail 1,000 times, he just discovered 1,000 ways which didn’t work, which he then eliminated."
A sense of urgency is necessary too, with successful entrepreneurs keen to find out as soon as possible whether an idea is going to work or not. "You need to be customer focused, not product focused, and if you think it’s going to work, go out and validate it before it’s too late."
A sense of the big picture
Entrepreneurship is inherently multifaceted. When you start a business, you won’t have functions or departments, just your own sweat and tasks to be done. Making a success of it therefore requires an ability not only to perform the key roles that any business needs, but also to appreciate why they’re so important in the first place, and how they intersect in an effective organisation.
"To start a business you need to know what people in the market need, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to build and deliver it. It’s a very different set of skills to make sure your operations are co-ordinated and the right processes are in place. Even if you have that, for a business to be sustainable it also needs to be financially viable. All three of these elements – the market interface, the operational design and the financial model – need to come together," says Dimov.
A lot of the business people participating in courses like the Entrepreneurship Management and Innovation programme at Bath have a successful background in one or more of these areas, but rarely all three, so training, alongside meeting peers with different skill-sets can help them take on the task ahead.
"It is this sense of the big picture that ultimately separates successful entrepreneurs from the crowd," says Dimov, "not least because they understand how their own role will change as their businesses mature.
"Some people are very good at starting things, but when it comes to scaling it, someone has to take over from them. Those who stay and succeed are the ones who are curious and experimental, but who can also be focused and disciplined when the time calls for it."
Enrolment is now open for the September 2019 intake for the Entrepreneurship Management and Innovation online MSc at the Bath School of Management. Successful applicants will benefit from a holistic and comprehensive approach to developing entrepreneurial skills, from the cultivation of an idea through to its fruition as a successful venture. More information is available here.