The entrepreneurial personality

Most every bit of advice you’ll find for entrepreneurs is about making the leap, but leaping is not for everyone so it’s important to figure out whether it’s for you. Just beware of setting out to test your entrepreneurial DNA.

First, beware because there are as many online opportunities to assess your entrepreneurial personality as Cosmopolitan Magazine has to assess your sexual performance, or your the best colors to wear in Fall. Forbes, for example, can identify whether you are in “the lucky gene club” that has the signature traits of successful entrepreneurs—passion, vision, focus, courage, and will. Are you a risk taker, a thrill seeker, and a rebel? It turns out Da Vinci was too (though no word yet on how good he was in bed).

Anatomy of an Entrepreneur

A great number of us would consider ourselves unfit for corporate bridle and bit and, I suspect, have similarly drifted in our professional experiences into positions or projects which allow us the most ownership over our own work and its impacts.

David Cohen, writing in ”Do More Faster,” describes his own corporate career as “naive and rogue in my desire to deliver the smartest and most strategic results without being concerned with procedures.” In my time as a product designer at Apple, I was equally guilty and, when given the chance, always chose to own all of a small project over pieces of larger ones. “Better the head of a chicken than the tail of an ox,” the chinese proverb goes, and so went I.

Successful corporations must, by definition, separate your individual contribution from the ultimate goals of the company.  Lasting bureaucracies depend on the predictable work routines and heuristics of positions, not individuals (I’ve been told, for example, that of the 34,000 employees there are only about a dozen people at Apple whose departure actually would cause trouble). In other words, even the most innovative of corporations are dehumanizing for almost all of their emloyees.  Chafing at bureaucracy is a good start, but hardly sufficient qualifications for embarking on an entrepreneurial career. Would you hire someone else for this trait alone?

I question whether there are any particular traits that are necessary and sufficient. I have worked with successful entrepreneurs right out of school and others who didn’t start until after retiring as professors; I’ve worked with the unassuming and introverted as well as the brash and slick; and I’ve worked with hyper-caffeinated night owls and family men home by 6. There is no single picture of the right entrepreneurial personality—each succeeds because of, and in spite of, their own unique natural tendencies.

The Kauffman Foundation funded a study of the entrepreneurial demographic—in other words, what the average entrepreneur actually looks like. It turns out that they look pretty average. Kauffman surveyed 549 company founders in a range of industries, from aerospace and defense, to computer and electronics, health care, and services. Contrary to the popular image of a scraggle-haired young college drop-outs, when the company founders started:

  • Their average (and median) age was 40;
  • 95% had bachelor’s degrees, 47% had advanced degrees;
  • 71% came from middle-class backgrounds;
  • 70% were married; 60% had at least one child, and 43% had two or more;
  • Roughly 50% had interest in becoming an entrepreneur when they were in college;
  • 75% had worked at other companies for more than six years before launching their own companies, Nearly half (47.9%) had more than ten years of work experience.

As interesting are the motivations these founders cited for starting their own businesses:

  • 75% were motivated by the desire to build wealth;
  • 68% began with an idea (indicating that capitalizing on a business idea was an important motivation);
  • 64% said they have always wanted to own their own companies, and 60% said that working for others did not appeal to them;
  • Only 4.5% percent said not having a job was an important factor (over 80% said it was not a factor at all).

Not exactly the picture that comes to mind of a risk taker, a thrill seeker, and a rebel.

The stories we tell

The second danger in even talking about the entrepreneurial personality is because there are more misconceptions than there are truths about what a good entrepreneur does. There is no formal rules and procedures, no entrance exam, no admissions office, no career counseling, so anyone can call themselves an entrepreneur and carry on as they believe they should: taking risks, seeking thrills, and rebelling.

If that’s the culturally accepted job description, it’s no wonder we think it’s about having the right personality for it. But what if that’s not what makes a good entrepreneur? What if the job is not about leaping off the high-dive, but something else entirely—like building a boat?  Would we still want the same personalities?

Most would-be entrepreneurs have been weaned on stories of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Sergey Bring and Larry Page (not to mention Thomas Edison and Henry Ford) and already have a powerful notion of who they are and how they should live. But culture has a way of caricaturing itself through these stories.

The Horatio Alger story of rags to riches makes a great plot line for entrepreneurs: The lone genius or visionary entrepreneur, acting against the dull resistance of society and evil of entrenched interests, and believing in themselves when all others doubt, achieves great things. But this script rarely fits the facts. Henry Ford refused to dress the part, once saying, “To teach that a comparatively few men are responsible for the greatest forward steps of mankind is the worst sort of nonsense.”

Worse, those who insist on following the script can undermine their own opportunities. Take Philo Farnsworth, one of the inventors of the television, as a cautionary tale for those who insist on believing in this “worst sort of nonsense.” Evan Schwartz, writing in Wired Magazine, describes Philo’s earnest motivations: “When Farnsworth was a boy, the legends of men like Edison, Bell, Morse, and the Wright brothers burned brightly, and he set out to be a lone inventor who could transform the world just as they did.”

So devoted was Farnsworth to his image of the lone inventor that he pitted himself against the world. He spurned the advances of David Sarnoff, head of the Radio Corporation of America (who Schwarz, in true Horatio Alger style, draws up as the evil squire). But television, like most other innovations, required more than just an idea—it required an entire system. First, the technology itself was complex enough that it ultimately required a range of inventions—some coming from independent “entrepreneurs” and some from corporate researchers (many of whom were funded by Sarnoff and RCA.

But television was not just a technical system—it was a social and economic one, too, that brought together something to watch and, as importantly, someone to pay for it. Sarnoff’s RCA succeeded in making television a reality, mainly because they had already built the nation’s largest radio network—much of which could be repurposed to support the new platform. Despite anyone’s need for Horatio Alger Farnsworth ultimately licensed his technology to RCA, but died an alcoholic, penniless, and depressed.

Is it right for you?

Whether you have the right personality or not for making the entrepreneurial leap depends on more than your personality. It also depends on (1) your understanding of what entrepreneurship actually entails (hint: not what Philo thought), and (2) on figuring out the right set of skills and resources that for turning your particular idea into a reality (hint: not what Philo could do well). In other words, what does the job really entail and are you the right person for it?

Every modern-day Edison that graces the cover of Time and Newsweek touting their invention; every business guru who insists we abandon the past to embrace the future; and every manager who insists upon demonstrating their individual genius takes us one step farther away from understanding and emulating the successful entrepreneurs of the past.

The trick is getting to know yourself, your idea, and the possible paths forward well enough to choose wisely. In reality, the particular needs of a new venture are more critical than the quirks of your own personality: What is this the right path for moving your idea forward? Based on your answers to this question, you can ask whether you’re the right person to take it down this path.

So don’t worry if you’re not a risk taker, a thrill seeker, or a rebel. Whether you have the right disposition for being an entrepreneur doesn’t depend on your personal Da Vinci code, it depends on making the leap well. If you do that, then in the process you will find the path and role that best suits you and your idea. Ultimately, I suppose, the only requirement is that you want to help build something new.