The idea of ‘the entrepreneur’ has taken on quite a fixed meaning in our society. We associate it with a certain type of person: often male, typically charismatic and certainly talented. This contributes to a myth which says that entrepreneurs are born and not made – that certain rare individuals walk the globe, knowing early on what their purpose is in life and how to achieve it.
This mythical idea of the entrepreneur is problematic because it limits the potential of entrepreneurialism itself. A fixed way of approaching entrepreneurialism – one which assumes that it involves big risk taking, visionary innovation, or impossible talent – makes it hard for people to identify with. This crystallises an exciting idea into something that appears unachievable for all but the few. Breaking the myth of the entrepreneur is the first step towards redefining entrepreneurialism as a set of skills which can be learned, adapted and applied in various circumstances.
Do entrepreneurs think differently?
One of the first lessons that can be drawn from studying successful entrepreneurs is a particular habit of thought: questioning and re-assessing your present situation. It’s often remarked about entrepreneurs that they think and do things that have never previously been done. This is often interpreted as them having ‘vision’ and seen as a natural talent: something that can’t be taught. In fact, this visionary quality is often quite simple. In many cases, it’s a question of trusting your instincts and using your own experience as a powerful guide for the unrealised needs of others.
Jan Koum co-founded WhatsApp in 2009 after he realised that smart-phones and apps were likely to have a big future. In this respect, Koum was unremarkable – 100,000 apps were launched between 2009 and 2010 – but the principles that fed into the design of WhatsApp were distinct because they were drawn from his own experiences of frustration. Using the device’s phone number as an automatic WhatsApp log-in seemed obvious to Koum because he was so fed up with changing his Skype password every time he forgot it. Equally, having lived in the Ukraine as a teenager – where state surveillance of phone lines was common – he understood the importance of having secure and direct channels of communication.
This story is similar to many that we encounter when looking at the lives of entrepreneurs. Nick Woodman, founder and CEO of GoPro, developed his business because he wanted to take ‘action-shots’ whilst enjoying his greatest passion in life: surfing. Caresse Crosby (born Mary Phelps Jacobs) invented the modern bra because she couldn’t fit into a corset. The principle here is simple: if something is bothering you, it probably bothers a lot of other people as well. In some ways, it’s really a skill of empathy and emotional intelligence. This can lead to the founding of a business empire, but it can also be employed within an organisation to improve current processes and arrangements. Another myth of the entrepreneur is that you have to start a company or design a product in order to become one. In fact, the principles of innovation are useful in every walk of life. Taking advantage of a novel idea is not just the preserve of the boardroom.
What makes an entrepreneur?
Another similarity that many entrepreneurs share is the ability to communicate their ideas: winning trust and convincing others that their way of thinking has value. This sort of charisma is, again, easy to label as a natural talent, but not all successful entrepreneurs are necessarily outgoing or self-confident. The introversion that can make entrepreneurs so good at developing ideas can also make them shy, retiring personalities. Part of this winning style of communication – implicit in the idea of selling your vision – comes about through good self-knowledge, not just a silver tongue.
This is why understanding your own strengths and limitations is a major component of entrepreneurial success. Knowing the areas in which you excel gives you the confidence to convince others that your abilities match your assurances. A willingness to try things and experiment is useful in this regard because it further clarifies those strengths. Many successful entrepreneurs try and fail in business more than once before they settle upon a winning formula. Failure, much like frustration, can be used as a guide for the future – just as long as it’s driven by self-knowledge.
This analysis is useful for the workplace because it shows that entrepreneurial spirit is, in some ways, more modest than we might expect. Arguably, the most surprising thing about how entrepreneurs think is how very human and down-to-earth the principles which guide their thinking are. Using your personal frustrations to understand those of others is a good principle of leadership. Creating an atmosphere in which employees can share their frustrations is productive because it has the potential to drive positive innovation and change within an organisation. This is the surprising truth of entrepreneurialism – that risk-taking and vision are often secondary to self-knowledge and self-compassion.
By Sophie Johnson, Sophie heads up the professional development offering for businesses at The School of Life. Focused on developing the emotional health of organisations.