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What Does it Take to be an Entrepreneur?

To be an entrepreneur means to solve problems like this woman

It’s a statistic cited almost too often: about half of new businesses don’t survive the first five years. But what the statistic doesn’t show is how many people think about starting a new business but never do. So what stops them from being an entrepreneur? In my experience, it’s I don’t know how or, translated a bit, It’s too hard.

This isn’t a But you can do it! Pollyannaish post.

Instead, I want to share an observation I made from the 20+ years I’ve worked in the business world. The difference between those who start and those who don’t is this:

When they start, entrepreneurs understand that they don’t know everything they’ll need to know to run that business, but they’re willing to figure it out.

This is also not always something entrepreneurs do consciously. Often, when they’re presented with a problem, they simply start working on the solution. They don’t seem to realize that no one is forcing them to.

To be an Entrepreneur, You Have to be a Reflexive Problem Solver

When you’ve always been surrounded by something, you only realize it’s there after it’s been taken away.

I Grew Up Surrounded by Reflexive Problem Solvers

I grew up helping my parents run businesses. When we came across things we didn’t know how to do, we figured it out. Sometimes, we figured it out through research; other times, we asked around.

Then, I went to engineering school and law school. I was surrounded by people whose first reaction on seeing a problem was to try to solve it.

It was not until I started to work as a lawyer that I realized not everyone saw problems as something to be solved. Many people simply prefer to just leave the problems alone. (They don’t always run away from it. They just…don’t provoke it.)

Many People Don’t Start Businesses Because the Road Looks too Hard

I started out at a small law firm where the younger lawyers took cold calls from prospective clients. Partially, the calls were good practice for learning how to counsel clients. But partially it was also because these cold calls didn’t often result in actual work, so the very busy senior lawyer didn’t take them.

I was an intellectual property lawyer, which meant that I worked with people who had ideas for inventions. We helped them get a patent and start a business based on the invention. But a lot of people didn’t understand that getting a patent was only the start. To build a business around the invention, they’d still have to make and sell the invention.

(If you watch Shark Tank, you’ll see the Sharks sometimes ask about patents. But they invest based on actual sales instead of just projected market share. So, unless you’re a tech startup in a hot technology area, even after getting a patent, you’d still have to prove that people will buy your product before you can get investors.)

We were always careful to explain that getting a patent wasn’t the end of the journey, but the beginning. We also explained the invention can’t just be a vague idea but needed a lot of details before we could help them. I gave them examples of the type of details we needed.

Most calls ended there. The callers were not inclined to figure out the details on how their invention worked so we could file a patent application for them. One person told me pretty straightforwardly that, “It’s too hard.”

Those Who Started the Patenting Process had Already Solved Various Problems Before They Called

Every once in a while, I talked to someone who would decide to go through with getting a patent. But, often, these folks had already worked out the details of their invention and solved the technical problems before they came to us.

I didn’t have to teach them how to be an entrepreneur. They already were.

Working at my first lawyer job was when I first realized that entrepreneurs approached life a little differently than most people. Having to solve problems in order to achieve their goal didn’t phase them. They merely went to work on it.

When Large Companies Bring a New Product to Market, They Use a Team of Problem Solvers Too

Fast forward a few years, and I was working as an in-house lawyer for large companies. Often, I was on teams that built new products and brought them to market.

Some of these products were completely new, but others had lots of added improvements to what’s already in the marketplace. Either way, we worked in the territory of the never-before or the never-before-for-us. There were always a lot of problems to solve.

Sometimes, we had to figure out how to build this or that. Other times, we had to find ways to prevent others from stopping us from selling the product. Or, even, how to convince people to buy or use our product. The road to commercialization was never easy or straightforward.

“We don’t know how” or “We can’t figure it out, so we should stop,” could never be the answer. The solutions weren’t always perfect, but we figured it out.

Not everyone on these project teams knew how to be an entrepreneur and reflexively solved problems. But pretty much everyone had that mentality that the correct way to approach a problem was to solve them instead of sitting around wringing our collective hands.

Never report to your boss about just the problem. Always propose a solution too.

Entrepreneurs Aren’t Afraid of Problems

So, over the years, being reflexive problem solvers is what I observed successful entrepreneurs do. It doesn’t matter if you’re a one-person startup or billion-dollar corporation. When you’re building a business, you will come across things you don’t know or problems you don’t know how to solve. You will even come across problems you didn’t know existed until you stepped right into them. And you’ll have to solve each and every one of them.

These problems don’t have to be spectacular problems in technology. It can be regular problems faced by all small businesspeople. It can even be a problem only to you because you personally don’t have the knowledge many others already have.

For example, say you want to open a new restaurant. You’re a great cook, but you know nothing about hiring employees. Or bookkeeping, or where to buy restaurant supplies, or how to lease a space for your restaurant.

Successful entrepreneurs acknowledge this. And then they go learn how to do it. They’re comfortable with the idea that they will come across difficulties, and they will have to solve them to survive.

This is the most important personal trait of an entrepreneur.

Everyone Can Learn to be an Entrepreneur

Can anyone learn this reflexive problem solver attitude and be an entrepreneur? I think yes. In fact, I think most personal traits of successful entrepreneurs can be learned.

Depending on your personality, you’ll have to push yourself in to learn some traits while other traits will come naturally to you. For example, if you’re an introvert, you’ll have to push yourself to learn how to market your business. If you’re an extrovert, you’ll have to force yourself to sit down and learn how to do basic bookkeeping for your small business.

But, as long as you believe you can solve these problems, and actually work on solving these problems, you should do just fine as an entrepreneur.

I’m not saying that being a reflexive problem solver will make your business enormously successful and you fabulously rich. To do that, you’ll need a little luck, to be at the right place at the right time.

But even if you’re not especially lucky, as long as you are comfortable with the idea that starting a business involves a never-ending stream of problem solving, you’re very likely to do fine. You’ll be in the half of the new business that survives after five years.

New Year, New Blog Category

Happy new year!

This is our first post of 2022, and we thought it’s a great opportunity to introduce a new category for our blog. The category is called Entrepreneurship, and this is the first post.

In the future, you can find all Entrepreneurship posts by clicking on the tag by the same name. As well, you can search the site using the tag, and our posts related to entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship will come up.

What the Entrepreneurship Tag is About

This website is mostly on the how-tos of starting and running a business. So, most of our articles are focused on concrete things like How to Find the Right Name for Your New Business or How to Open a Business Bank Account.

But there are some intangible aspects of starting and running a business too. That’s what this Entrepreneurship category is about.

In this category, I’ll be sharing a lot of observations I made in the over 20 years I worked in the business world. Because of my work specialty, I had a job that allowed me to work closely with some pretty incredible businesspeople.

Whether at a small startup or a multinational corporation, these folks were business builders. They took new ideas and turned them into something to be sold to the general public. I was lucky enough to be involved in projects that let me see every aspect of this process.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that some of these folks had a different way of thinking about things and looking at the world. They had either learned or instinctively knew how to be an entrepreneur. These ways of thinking and looking at the world are the things I want to share in this new category.

What’s Planned in the Future

I have five to ten articles planned in this category so far. I hope to have more, but I’m not sure how many more. A lot of this is because I think the principles of entrepreneurship should be simple. So, the lessons I’ve learned over the years shouldn’t require an overwhelming number of blog posts either.

This website will continue to focus on how-to articles. Once in a while, one of these Entrepreneurship posts will pop up.

We’ll see how long I can keep this going. I’d be especially interested in hearing your thoughts on these posts. So, don’t be shy. Join the conversation on Facebook or Twitter. Ask questions or share experiences. I look forward to hearing your feedback.

Turning to Our Next How-To Series

Now, as promised last year, we go back to our how-to articles. Next up: product packaging. If you sell an item, you’ll need this. And there’s more to product packaging than you might think.

Interested in starting and running a small business? Here’s the beginning of our step-by-step guide: What to do right after getting that great business idea.

Questions? Comments?