What makes a great entrepreneur?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the defining characteristics of successful entrepreneurs. I’m currently producing a web video series about people who’ve turned their passion into interesting small businesses. I’ve also been reading and listening to a lot of entrepreneurs’ stories through books, blogs and podcasts.

What I’ve noticed is a number of common characteristics in their stories, and distilled them into this post. Sure, there’s thing like hard work, luck, good people skills etc. But what I’m really interested in are the factors at the very heart of what drives and defines them – what Steve Sammartino, in his Start Up Blog, refers to as the DNA of the entrepreneur.

Here’s what I found when I put that DNA under the microscope:

1. They’ve constructed a narrative around their success story. They enjoy telling their story, and it has a clear narrative arc. There’s light and shade, action and stillness, humour and tragedy – all the factors that make up a great story. It’s not simply a series of disparate incidents. It’s a journey of linking moments that have a clear internal logic. They’re able to place themselves outside of the story and reflect on their journey with clarity and insight. You can only tell a great story when you have mastery over your subject. It also seems that you need to be able to be a good storyteller in order to have a great business.

2. Successful entrepreneurs have identified what their business REALLY does. Their focus is not simply on the practical function of the business e.g. we sell shoes, we unblock drains, we feed people. Rather, they’ve illuminated the point at which their business connects with its customers at the deepest level e.g. we help our customers to define their self-image, we make problems go away, we provide nurture and sustenance etc

3. They’ve fallen onto their path almost accidentally. Having been initially guided by passion and natural ability, they’ve gone on to construct the formal aspects of their business as it has grown. The action came first, and this gave birth to the business.

4. They have hit rock bottom. They’ve experienced the metaphorical ‘dark night of the soul’ in their business – often marked by loneliness, desolation, and an overwhelming urge to give up. Having come through, they’ve redoubled their efforts. They’ve turned that wound into a scar, a talisman, a warning, and a badge of honour.

5. If they were a band people would get up and dance. When you see a band play in a sit-down theatre situation there’s a tension in the audience between the musical invitation to rise up and experience the music in their bodies, and the gravity that holds their butt to the seat. But these guys play their instrument so sweetly that their audience is compelled to respond passionately, spontaneously, almost rapturously.

6. The business has become a vehicle to pursue higher order functions, goals and dreams – stuff to do with connection, self-expression, testing themselves against themselves. Like an athlete who attends to the practical, physical requirements required to achieve success, but knows that the real challenge is deeper, internal, and abstract.

7. While caring deeply about their business, they are able to separate themselves emotionally from their business. They realise that the business is not part of them. It is not a limb that will cause them pain when the limb is attacked. They realise that in the end it is merely a construct, a vehicle to propel them on their journey.

What other aspects help define the DNA of the entrepreneur? What do you agree/disagree with? I’d love to know what you think. Please add your voice.

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7 Responses to “What makes a great entrepreneur?”

  1. On 15/06/2010 at 6:15 AM Steve Sammartino responded with... #

    Great list Ryan.

    I especially love numbers 5 and 6. To me the key reasons who endure the hardships of running a business.

    Steve.

  2. On 15/06/2010 at 9:58 AM Nicole Spanger responded with... #

    Very True, I can identify strongly with your inspiring list. Persistence is another essential. As Calvin Coolidge famously said “Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

  3. On 16/06/2010 at 4:52 AM Ryan Spanger responded with... #

    Thanks for your comments, Steve.

    Nic: ‘the world is full of educated derelicts.’ lol.

  4. On 18/07/2010 at 12:10 PM Nick Bowditch responded with... #

    Gday Ryan,

    I can relate personally to at least a couple on your list, but I think the most important ones are the first about being able to tell your story and if they were a band, people would fill the dancefloor.

    If entrepreneurs don’t have those two qualities they might still make a difference, but it’s gonna be a lot bloody harder for them.

    Good post mate.

    Nick

  5. On 18/07/2010 at 1:48 PM Jason Berek-Lewis responded with... #

    Hi Ryan, Thanks for this post. I love the first point about narrative. I really get how important – no critical – this is. Entrepreneurs are leaders, and leaders need a clear story to tell.

    I am clear on what my story is, but I guess I can be pretty long winded about it. My next step is an elevator pitch of who I am, where I come from and – most importantly from the point of view of growing into being an entrepreneur – where I am going.

    The other thing that I love about having a clear story is that it invites others to share their own. Sharing stories helps us to learn. Being an entrepreneur is as much about discovery as anything else. Sharing stories is a great way to share inspiration and support!

  6. On 18/07/2010 at 11:21 PM ryanspanger responded with... #

    Thanks, Nick. Good to read your thoughts. Look forward to meeting you at ProBloggerMelb.
    Thanks Jason. Some good discussion on your blog about Entrepreneurship: http://bit.ly/cLUIjP

  7. On 10/08/2010 at 7:23 AM lindy responded with... #

    yes.xxx

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