At a recent Startup Weekend, one of the attendees asked me what I thought were the most important traits for an entrepreneur to posses to be successful. I’ve thought about it some since, and while I don’t pretend to be an expert on whether any of these are true or not since I only know my own experience, these are the traits I think best prepared me for the life of an entrepreneur:
It never occurred to me as a kid that my parents owed me anything, and if I wanted something badly enough, it was my job to figure out how to make that happen. That mindset stayed with me when my husband and I were newlyweds. He was finishing up his electrical engineering degree while I worked at the public school. We couldn’t afford new storage containers, so I started thinking of ways to get some. Looking back on it now, it was rather an insane decision, but instead of asking for a few containers, I asked my grandma for help getting started selling Tupperware. Even after paying her back the money I’d borrowed for my starter kit, I still earned more money that year selling Tupperware than I did working at the school. And the containers I needed? I’m still using them after more than 25 years of marriage.
I honestly think one of the most important things I discovered over the years was the value of being scrappy. Learned helplessness and over-dependence on others have no place in the entrepreneurial mindset, and when I hear others say that something is too hard or that they deserve help, it sets off warning bells in my head. There is absolutely nothing wrong with asking for help or deciding that the physical, mental, financial or emotional cost of something isn’t worth the payoff, but to give up easily because there isn’t enough from within to draw from when things get difficult – that is never going to help an entrepreneur find success.
I think to a great extent, I’ve always felt like an outsider, even if it didn’t appear that way to others. For me, feeling like an outsider had nothing to do with being an introvert or extrovert. I simply never felt like I fit in, like I belonged. In school, I had a great many friends who I liked a lot. But when I was in a group, I never quite related or felt like I was like the rest of my peers. And as much as I liked most of my classmates, having to work on a group project was far worse punishment that anything else I could imagine. I despised group projects, mostly because I would have preferred to just finish the project on my own and then d0 something else with the rest of the time.
Even now as a grown woman with grown children, when a group of girlfriends are talking about their lives, it sometimes seems so foreign to me, and I end up feeling a bit bad that I can’t relate. I just can’t get into who said what to whom or who isn’t talking to someone else anymore. I can’t understand why any of that news should be any of my business or why I should want to know.
It’s actually been an unexpected benefit as an entrepreneur that even if I don’t feel like I fit anywhere else, I am quite comfortable in this space I’ve carved out in my corner of the world. Entrepreneurship is a lonely business, and if someone constantly needs the companionship of others, it’s going to be hard to spend the solitary hours focusing on the needs of the business rather than socializing. I love an event and a party as much as anyone else, but I’m just as happy being alone building on the vision that drives me day and night. As odd as it may seem, feeling like I don’t quite fit has made it easier to adjust to the life of building something that has never existed before.
My mom accuses me of causing her to back into a light pole one night in a parking lot because I just wouldn’t stop arguing, and I’m pretty sure she has plenty of reason to blame me. There’s a negative connotation to being argumentative, and I actually spent quite a while looking for a more palatable word to describe this trait. But being argumentative, when it is not contentious or rude, isn’t necessarily a bad trait.
All the time I was selling newspapers to my neighbors, persuading young parents to let me babysit and working retail at the local mall, I was refining my argumentative nature into a more gentle approach. I learned that no quite often meant maybe or help me get to yes. Sometimes it meant no, and that was ok, but if I dug deeper, it sometimes meant they had doubts or fears that just needed dispelled.
Entrepreneurship is probably the longest, most unrelenting series of rejections, disappointments, closed doors, and negative feedback anyone will ever experience in such a short amount of time. If a founder doesn’t believe a yes lies beyond the litany of no’s, they will never possess enough fortitude to take all of that negative feedback and rejection to turn it into fuel needed to push forward. The very trait that frustrated my mother – and probably every teacher and boss I ever had – has also turned out to be one of the most important traits I’ve used to move forward as an entrepreneur.
Being dogged is a bit different than simply being competitive or driven, and it’s been a trait that has helped me persevere through some of the worst moments I’ve known as an entrepreneur. Among the most difficult experiences I’ve faced has been having to show up for an investor meeting just a couple of hours after my mother, sister and brother and I held each other as we watched my father’s body being wheeled down the sidewalk of my parents’ home to the waiting hearse. That was a dark, dark day for me, when the responsibility that I carried on my shoulders was the heaviest I’ve known, because there were others depending on me to be strong enough to put my own grief aside and keep a meeting that mattered for the future of our company. It wasn’t that I wanted to win bad enough to put my company before my grief, and it wasn’t my drive to succeed that helped me get through that meeting. It was a dogged determination to keep my promises, to live up to the trust others had in me, that got me through it with the answers I needed to take back to our team.
While it is vital for entrepreneurs to possess a competitive drive, it is not enough on its own. Not to pick on Tonya Harding, but her behavior in pursuit of a gold medal so horrified me as a young girl that it imprinted on my psyche that no award, no win was ever worth harming others to get to the top. There are plenty of examples of getting to the top without losing our integrity, and remembering that it’s not only possible but better to win with our morals intact – especially when the temptation to get dirty to win is right in front of us – that is one of the most difficult challenges many entrepreneurs will face.
It isn’t just about having drive, either. We can be so driven that we lose the context of the rest of our lives. I eat, drink and sleep our company’s growth and needs, but I am also a daughter, a mother, a wife, a friend. And having that foundation keeps me human and grounded. Doggedness keeps our eyes where they’re supposed to be – not on our competition or some shiny new idea but firmly on our own goals. Being dogged means not quitting when others doubt your qualifications or the first five investors you pitch tell you no. It means not losing focus when self-doubts nibble at your confidence or begin to sway conviction of your vision. Doggedness, to me, is simply not giving up when giving up would be acceptable, because when you convinced others to quit secure jobs to join your efforts and found investors willing to back your vision with their own money, quitting just isn’t acceptable without having first tried absolutely everything to succeed.
One of my first jobs after getting married was working with a psychologist testing students with limited cognitive abilities. I remember one particularly sweet young man who, when asked what he wanted to do when he graduated, quickly said, “I want to be an astronaut and walk on the moon. But I’ll probably just do yard work.” My heart broke a little bit at his pragmatism, of understanding his dreams weren’t within reach but still worth holding on to.
I felt a little like that when I first expressed out loud to another person this idea that had been percolating for several weeks in my mind, a really big idea. I wondered if they would think I was a bit crazy, reaching well beyond what my dreams should be. And then I realized that it didn’t matter, because it was a little crazy to think about launching out into the unknown, to take incredible risk, all to pursue an idea that could change possibilities for others all over the world. When someone believes their idea has the power to affect the lives of people all over the globe, does that make them visionary or a wee bit crazy? I think it likely takes a little bit of crazy, at least in the world’s eyes, to walk away from security and a steady paycheck to set about building a concept into reality because of a belief that one day it can and should change the world as we know it.
For me, I cannot believe an entrepreneur’s success is determined by whether they were a straight-A student or struggled in school or whether they were popular enough to be on the homecoming court or got through childhood with two good friends. I’m not even sure it matters if someone went to an Ivy League university or skipped college altogether. At least from my experience, the true drivers of success are at the inner core of a person – their depth of character and integrity, resilience in the face of adversity and the unrelenting pursuit of a vision, especially if that includes just the right dose of crazy.