Issues

The 3 Traits of a Successful Entrepreneur

Photo © Shutterstock

Very few people have the personality characteristics and skills that make up a successful entrepreneur. And it isn’t about being “good enough” or “smart enough” – indeed, some of the characteristics of successful entrepreneurs are real detriments in other aspects of life.

So, how do you know if you’re an entrepreneur? There are three questions to answer:

1. Are you comfortable with public failure?
2. Do you like to sell?
3. Do you lack the skills to work at a big firm?

The traits of successful entrepreneurs haven’t changed much in the digital age: you need more builders than branders, and it’s key to have a technologist as part of, or near, the founding team.

I know people who have all the skills to build great businesses. But they’ll never do so, because they could never go to work only to, at the end of the month, in exchange for working eighty hours a week, write the firm a check.

Unless you have built firms and shepherded them to successful exits, or have access to seed capital (most don’t, and it’s always expensive), then you’ll need to pay the company for the right to work your ass off until you can raise money. And most start-ups never raise the needed money. Most people can’t wrap their head around the notion of working without getting paid – and ninety-nine percent plus will never risk their own capital for the pleasure of  … working.

Are you comfortable with public failure?

Most failures are private: You decide law school isn’t for you (bombed the LSAT); you decide to spend more time with your kids (got fired), or you’re working on a bunch of “projects” (can’t get a job). However, there’s no hiding with your own business failure. It’s you, and if you’re so awesome, it must succeed … right? Wrong, and when it doesn’t, it feels like elementary school, where the marketplace is a sixth grader laughing at you because you’ve wet your pants … times a hundred.

Do you like to sell?

“Entrepreneur” is a synonym for “salesperson.” Selling people to join your firm, selling them to stay at your firm, selling investors, and (oh yeah) selling customers. It doesn’t matter if you’re running the corner store or Pinterest; if you plan to start a business, you’d better be damn good at selling. Selling is calling people who don’t want to hear from you, pretending to like them, getting treated poorly, and then calling them again. I likely won’t start another business because my ego is getting too big (and my intestinal fortitude too weak) to sell.

I, incorrectly, believe that our collective genius at L2 should mean the product sells itself – and sometimes it does. There has to be a product that doesn’t require you to get out the spoon and publicly eat shit over and over. Actually, no, there isn’t.

Google has an algorithm that can answer anything and identify people who have explicitly declared an interest in buying your product, then advertise to those people at that exact moment. Yet Google still has to hire thousands of attractive people with average IQs and exceptional EQ to sell the shit out of … Google. Entrepreneurship is a sales job with negative commissions for the first three to five years, or until you go out of business – whichever comes first.

The good news: If you like to sell and you’re good at it, you will always make more money, relative to how hard you work, than any of your colleagues, and … they will hate you for it.

Do you lack the skills to work at a big firm?

Being successful in a big firm is not easy and requires a unique skill set. You have to play nice with others, suffer injustices and bullshit at every turn, and be politically savvy – get noticed by key stakeholders doing good work and garner executive-level sponsorship. However, if you are good at working at a big firm, then, on a risk-adjusted basis, you are better off doing just that – and not struggling against the long odds of working at a small firm. Big firms are great platforms that can scale your skills.

If, on the other hand, you don’t play well with others, have an inability to trust your fate to others, and are almost clinically obsessed with your vision for a new product or service, you may be an entrepreneur. I know I am one: Past potential employers viewed me as such an asshole I had to start my own business. For me, entrepreneurship was a survival mechanism, as I didn’t have the skills to be successful at the greatest platforms in history, big U.S. companies.

At small firms, the highs are very high and the lows even lower. My greatest joy and pride are my kids. Second are the firms we’ve started, even the failures. As with kids, there is an instinctive, genetic connection with a firm you’ve founded. It looks, smells, and feels like you, and you can’t help but feel joy and pride when it takes its first step. And it’s like your child coming home with a good report card when that company is written up as one of the fastest-growing firms in Ronkonkoma, New York.

Just as important, and unlike parenthood, most people deep down know they could never do what you do. There’s an admiration for entrepreneurs, as they are the engine of job growth and uniquely American in their optimism and willingness to take risks.

That said, in our digital age, with the endless and well-publicized stories of billionaire college dropouts, we idealize entrepreneurship. Ask yourself, and some people you trust, the above questions about your personality and skills. If you answer positively on the first two, and you are not skilled at working at a big company, then step into the cage of chaos monkeys.

Excerpted from The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google by Scott Galloway, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Scott Galloway, 2017