An integral (though slightly diminishing) part of our countries identity is that of the “American Dream.” In 1931, historian James Truslow Adams first coined the term, claiming that the American dream was a “dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement… It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
Being an entrepreneur is, in many ways, the epitome of the American Dream. Regardless of the economic stature you’re born into, you create your own opportunities, define your own goals, and have your success determined ultimately by your own hard work, talent, and ability to lead. With the rise of the internet, more people than ever are able to start their own businesses with just a few quick lines of code. But becoming a successful entrepreneur requires a lot more than just setting up your shop on Etsy and letting those dolla’ dolla’ bills roll in. It takes a great deal of innate and learned capabilities.
For most, the prospect of being your own boss and investing in your own enterprise is exhilarating. Success stories of small startups hitting it big overnight (and making their founders very rich) are easy to get caught up in. But the most important part of theses success stories to pay attention to isn’t where they ended up, it’s how they got there. It’s the sacrifices the founders made, the times they almost walked away and gave up, and how much of their life they put on the line in the thin hopes of a big payoff.
Before you go put down a deposit on a trendy downtown office space that just needs a little love and mini fridge, ask yourself if you’re ready for the reality of what the journey to success (and sometimes failure) actually entails. Do you have what it takes to be an entrepreneur?
You need vision.
Vision is different from just a great idea for a product or service. Everyone has an idea for an app or luxury service that they think everyone would want were it available, but even the best ideas don’t necessarily ensure that you’ll beat the competition. Sometimes companies with the best product go under, and mediocre services find huge success. Vision is what’s going to take your company from an idea to an in-demand business that dominates a segment of the market.
Similarly, you’ll need to be able to communicate that vision at every stage. In the beginning especially, you might be resolving a late office supply order one minute and talking to a huge investor about how you’ll be expanding all over the country within a few years the next. A successful entrepreneur needs to be able to work in the day-to-day while making sure those efforts fit into the overall vision of the company.
You need to be all in.
For most new businesses, the first few years of operation are spent building up the proper infrastructure. You’ll be spending more than you’re getting back in revenue, and you won’t be projecting consistent profit for quite some time.
This isn’t just going to affect your work life, it’s going to affect your entire life. You probably won’t receive a paycheck for several months which means a dwindling personal savings without any guaranteed payout date. Entrepreneurs love telling stories about their humble beginnings (like starting out of a garage.) It can make for an interesting contrast down the line, but it’s a harsh reality while you’re in it.
You need to tell your friends and family they won’t be seeing as much of you.
Most entrepreneurs personal relationships suffer as they work to get their company off the ground. If you don’t prioritize the company, it’s not going to make it, but by doing so, many otherwise important parts of your life will inevitably get put on the back-burner. Friends and family will probably try to be understanding and supportive at first, but that support can dwindle as you’re missing yet another gathering or important life event because you have to travel for a big meeting with a prospect.
As a business owner, you don’t get to clock in and out of the business like the rest of your employees. You’re on call 24/7. If you’re not physically working late in the office, you’ll probably be answering emails on your phone at home. And forget about weekends and holidays. No piece of personal time is off limits when you’re the one in charge.
You need to be able to build and lead a team of diverse, motivated individuals.
No man is an island, and no company finds success without the efforts of many. Having the right team by your side is key, which means not only finding, convincing, and hiring the right people, but being able to lead them as they develop both personally and professionally over their time as your employee.
As a small business, you’ll be focused on hiring people that are tireless, self-motivated, and have a strong sense of their own goals and values. The problem is, get a bunch of strong-willed, intelligent people together under one roof, and you’re not exactly setting yourself up for an easy ride. You’re going to be challenged, constantly, which means being able to back up the things that matter most to you and let go of the things that don’t work for the greater good. Aligning the various strengths of your team will be your greatest challenge and your best chance of success.
Which brings me to my next point.
You need to be flexible.
No matter how detailed and thoroughly researched your business plan, you can’t predict everything. Your company will not end up exactly how you envisioned things on Day 1. One of the most important characteristics of an entrepreneur is his/her ability to adapt, improvise, and sometimes entirely scrap parts of the business.
The decisions you made about the business 3 months ago might not hold true today for one reason or another. The faster you can see something isn’t working and implement a better solution, the faster your company will shape into the well-oiled machine you hope it to become.
You need to roll up your sleeves.
At your last job maybe you had a few bosses above and below you. You probably had entry, mid, and upper level employees, each with their own set of designated responsibilities, precisely relevant to their title. If you want to be an entrepreneur, it’s time to forget about that world for awhile.
Sometimes you’ll be speaking to a room full of wildly successful investors, other times you’ll be refilling the toilet paper in the bathroom because your co-founder didn’t replace the roll when it was finished (again.) No task is beneath you when you’re starting out. If you can’t roll up your sleeves and care as much about accounting and IT as you do about customer acquisition and deals, you’ll never make it out of the gate.
You need to be able to juggle a million initiatives at once that all feel like they should have been done yesterday.
You’ll be asked to wear too many hats to count. Your ability to weigh the importance of tasks and prioritize accordingly is vital. With so much that needs to get done, it’s incredibly easy to get sucked into a relatively unimportant task for minutes, hours, or even days as more important things pile up. Stay aware of all that needs to get done, but make sure you’re focusing on the tasks that will make the biggest impact on the business as a whole.
Beyond focus, you’ll need to be sure that you’re not re-inventing the wheel every day you walk into work. Figuring out how to set goals, measure progress, and evaluate success in each part of your business is what will help you optimize for efficiency at every stage.
Over time, you’ll hire more people, and you’ll be able to completely step away from things like HR and IT. But regardless, you’ll need a reasonable level of competence in every area of your business. No better way to learn than by doing it all when you’re just starting out.
You need to be comfortable self-promoting.
The old sentiment “if you build it, they will come” unfortunately doesn’t work in today’s world of business. If you want customers, you need to understand the market, define your role within it, educate your audience, and ultimately cultivate a widespread understanding of why people need to buy whatever you’re selling.
No matter what your personality is naturally, you’re going to have to be impressively comfortable at self-promoting. Whenever possible, you need to be talking about where your company is at, where it’s going, and why it’s so amazing without breaking a sweat. Whether you’re at a conference or the bar next door, you never know when a valuable connection will be made that could lead to a huge deal for your company.
You need to be able to make hard decisions that others may not like you for.
You can’t please everyone all the time. In any leadership role, you’re going to be put in the position where you have to make a decision that someone isn’t going to like. In business, your choices can have profound affects on your employees lives.
Whether you’re changing the companies direction, parting ways with a partner, or sacrificing part of your own vision you once had for the company, you’re going to be making choices that affect a lot of people around you. It’s never easy, and sometimes you will make mistakes, but it has to be done. Worst of all, even when you are sure you made the “right” decision, some of those moments are going to stick with you for years to come.
You need to be able to accept failure.
This may mean admitting you’re wrong, failing to solve a particular problem, or your entire company closing up shop. Failure is an inevitable and essential part of entrepreneurship.
Most successful business owners will tell you they’ve had a few of their endeavors go south, but they will also tell you how their failures ended up teaching them some of the most important lessons that allowed them to get where they are today.
You need resolve.
Entrepreneurs need to have more self-discipline than most people. You have scarce resources, no reputation, and a finite amount of time in which to get things done. This means not just creating a plan, but following through with swift precision.
Without proper follow-up and follow-through with every prospect, customer, and business partner, you lose an opportunity. You might lose a customer, a chance to increase the value of a sale or influence someones buying frequency, or you might just neglect to properly build a potentially lucrative business relationship that your company might have benefitted from down the line.
You need some luck.
Even if you do everything a successful entrepreneur is “supposed” to do, there will always be a certain element of luck that will make something work or take it all away. No one can discount the importance of being in the right place at the right time.
You need emotional fortitude.
There will be times when you can’t imagine being any more overwhelmed. Your emotions will get the better of you, and hopefully you have the emotional intelligence to know how to deal with them in a healthy way.
It’s okay to feel the ups and downs of your business. You don’t have to be an emotionally detached robot to make it through, but you do need to have the ability to feel discouraged, unhappy, or upset, and decide to move forward anyways. If you let the weight of uncertainty and doubt get you down, this line of work will eat you alive.
Elon Musk once described entrepreneurship “like eating glass and walking on hot coals at the same time.” An entrepreneur faces all the same challenges of everyday life coupled with the burden of an entire company on their shoulders. It’s not for everyone.
Simply put, you need strength of mind and character. You need to have a vision of what your business means in the world. You need a little bit of luck.
Most importantly: you need to believe in what you’re doing. If you didn’t believe in what you were doing, what sane person would do this?