There are a lot of people running around these days calling themselves “entrepreneurs”. However, I’ve discovered a few fool-proof ways to quickly see the differences between successful entrepreneurs and wantrepreneurs–or people who want to start a business, but who actually aren’t going to take action and create a real business.
Here are five traits I’ve noticed in startup founders and entrepreneurs that don’t exist in “wantrepreneurs”:
1. A willingness to learn anything.
I hear this all the time: “If only I had a developer…” You’re never going to be successful if you externalize what’s wrong (I can’t hire a developer because I don’t have any money/no one will give me money, and therefore I can’t start or build my product.) It’s a poor attitude.
When I hear someone say this, my first question is: “Have you built a prototype?” Surprisingly, 90% of the time, the answer is no. Even great developers aren’t mind-readers. They need a “spec”–a detailed document of what you expect to accomplish with your product. If you need someone else to come up with that, you’re going to have to dig deeper and examine your own feelings about why you feel you’re not worthy to do that. As a founder, you have to be the one championing the direction of the product.
If you have a paper prototype, your next step is to hire someone to build it. Right? WRONG. Your next step is to build it. Sit down with a book or take a class on HTML and CSS, and build out a demo version of your product. Is it ugly? Doesn’t matter–if it’s useful to others, they’ll buy it, or at the very least, express interest in buying it.
At this point, you may get an uneasy look on your face. Isn’t it better to hire someone who knows what they’re doing? In the future, yes. Right now, though, you don’t even know how to tell whether someone knows what they’re doing or not. Plus, without a spec or prototype, you’re going to spend a whole lot of extra money and time having someone else do it wrong over and over again (because again, even the best developer can’t read your mind.)
Once you understand how building a website works, you can dip your toes into code. Read up on the differences between Python, Ruby on Rails, and PHP. Pick one to learn. Spend a week learning the basics. Then spend the next couple of months hacking on weekends. This will help you figure out whether that developer you’re about to pay a fortune to actually knows what he or she is doing.
The point of this exercise is three-fold. One, it gets you familiar with how to articulate your vision to a developer. Two, since you have more time than money, it shows everyone (including prospective developers) that you’re serious and committed to this project. And finally, if you can get something up there, even if it’s just a sketch with buttons that don’t work, you can start showing it to prospective customers and asking them to commit to paying for it. (Note that I didn’t say “Asking them how much they would pay for it.” I said “Asking them to commit to paying for it.” There’s a huge difference. Only one path will show you whether your idea will actually be successful.)
2. Going above and beyond to build something that people want.
One of the biggest issues I see business owners get stuck on is checking their ego at the door. A common symptom of this is when I hear someone quote Henry Ford saying: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” In other words, you are the person who knows what everyone else wants, and once people see what you have to offer, they’ll immediately drop everything they’re doing now and do it your way instead.
Sometimes that’s a good quote–especially if you’ve been buried deep in your market for years, you have expert-level knowledge, and you have the prototype out and people are pulling out their credit cards and begging to buy your product even though your demo isn’t functional yet. If you have all that, though, you’re probably not the target of this article!
If you haven’t been in your market for years, and you have an idea for a product that requires the market–your potential customers–to think about things in a totally different way, that’s the most likely path to failure. Educating a market is incredibly expensive. You won’t be able to do it alone, especially with limited funds. (See New Coke.) Even if you really have invented a better mousetrap, if people are happy with their current mousetrap (or worse, don’t find value in paying to trap mice!), you’re going to have a tough path to success.
So what’s the better option? Finding out what’s in the market and what people hate about what’s out there. Then, instead of trying to “shock” them with something totally new, just incrementally improve on what’s out there.
You can make a million-dollar business by entering an incredibly competitive market and doing one thing better. With my last company, that was better customer support. Yep, that was it…the grand differentiator between my web hosting company and 20,000 others! It’s easy to over-think this stuff. Find one thing that sucks in your market, and start a company that fixes that gap.
3. Not knowing where your next dollar is coming from, but going forward anyway.
Startup founders and entrepreneurs are inherently scrappy folks. The people I hear who “pooh-pooh” consulting and “trading dollars for hours” are the ones most likely to fail on a project. If money gets tight, scrape together as much consulting work as you can and live as frugally as you can. Yeah, it’s not ideal to do consulting and try to run your own business, but you do what you have to do.
Ask yourself this: Do you believe in your startup idea so much that you’d be willing to sell your car and drive a beater for the next year in order to fund yourself for another month? If the answer is no, you need to decide: How committed are you to running your own business?
If you decide you enjoy your lifestyle the way it is and you’re really not interested in the crazy life of an entrepreneur, there’s nothing wrong with that–and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I have seen startup founders who sleep on their own couch and rent out all the bedrooms in their house on AirBNB so they don’t have to pay rent. I once sold my entire DVD collection (bought years earlier) just so I could buy myself a couple of meals. Sometimes that’s what it takes. Sometimes you can just get by with consulting for a while. But you need to be willing to make large sacrifices, and be okay with wild income swings and/or consulting to pay the bills, in order to start a company.
4. Being willing to launch and ship even when it’s not perfect.
This has been the hardest one for me. There’s always one more feature to build, or something that customers expect that you don’t have. Customers (or potential customers!) can even get emotional and/or upset that you don’t offer something they expect.
Part of the answer is about setting expectations. No, our product is not perfect. It’s software. It’s going to have bugs. We are a tiny team and we are doing the best we can. I can give you an ETA on that feature you need, but it’s likely going to be a week or two…or a month or more, if it’s something complex.
The other part of the answer is being willing to let go. So a customer signed up and then they hate your user interface. Or they need a feature you don’t have. This is a success story, not a failure. First of all, they signed up (even on a free trial), so they see value in your product. Secondly, now you know what customers need. See if you can extend their trial or give them a discount until you can get the feature built.
And if what they’re asking for is completely unrealistic and/or it would take your product in a direction you’re not interested in going, cut them loose. Your sanity is always worth more than the money. That’s a lesson that’s been extremely difficult, but ultimately, I feel a lot better about running a business by being able to say “Yes” when it’s deserved, and a blunt “No” when it’s just not realistic for us to build. “Do you do social media tracking?” “No.” “Any plans to offer that?” “Not at this time.” Ah, what a relief–having the freedom and courage to say “No”!
5. Clearly articulating your vision of the future…and getting people to believe it.
I notice in many “wantrepreneurs” a sort of allergy or aversion to anything that might be considered “selling.” Talk about your product and what it does? No thanks. Interviewing a potential employee? Let’s keep it focused on the numbers and benefits.
Ultimately, though, the best entrepreneurs and business owners are evangelists. They are passionate about their market. For instance, I run an analytics company. I will talk your ear off about the state of the web analytics market, how broken it is, and how my company is solving that problem. In fact, I told a friend the other day, in the middle of a breathless spiel of what we’re working on at Whoosh Traffic for 2013, “You got me going on my favorite subject.” I love talking about analytics. I’m passionate about it.
That’s what you have to do–to potential customers, current customers, your blog readers, your family (fortunately I have an amazing fiance who never seems to get tired of my obsessive rants about cohort analysis, conversion statistics, and client reporting!) If you have the presence to get other people excited, and sharing in your vision, you can do anything. Great employees will turn down other, more lucrative jobs to work with you. Customers will show up, because your passion will come through in your copywriting. And other blogs and news magazines will be more likely to feature you (see my Mixergy interview as a good example!)
Are You Cut Out to Be An Entrepreneur?
It’s a ridiculous roller coaster of emotions to start your own business. You’ll likely start out with one idea and iterate into a larger vision. You’ll have moments of total despair and frustration, where you wonder if you were crazy to even attempt this, and you’ll have insane highs where you feel like you’re on top of the world.
Being an entrepreneur is not for everyone. Is it for you? Only you can decide that. For me, the answer is clear: I wouldn’t have it any other way!
I encourage you to take action after you read this post. What are you going to do? Write out some startup ideas? Sketch out a prototype on paper? Learn HTML and CSS? Post your thoughts and goals in the comments!
- How to Choose a Business. How do you choose which business idea to run with? I discuss a few angles.
- The One Thing Successful Entrepreneurs Do Differently. What’s the difference in mindset between most people–and extremely successful people?
- Pricing Strategies. How to price your product or service…to avoid killing your business.