What differentiates a successful entrepreneur who manages to launch the perfect, genre-defining app from one whose product never manages to make it to market? Sure, they have to be driven — and they have to have vision — but even the best idea and a good understanding of the market you’re getting into isn’t enough to be successful.
In order to find out what separates the best entrepreneurs from the rest, we asked five business owners what traits they thought made them successful entrepreneurs. Here’s what they told us.
Entrepreneurs Aren’t Complacent
Running a new business is so much work that it’s easy to lose track of the big picture. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, less than half of new businesses (49.6%) survive the first 6 years, and by 12 years, that number drops to 20.3% — about 1 in 5. When you do start turning a steady profit, it can be tempting to stick with your business instead of moving on to a new project. For some entrepreneurs, however, success is just a launchpad for future ideas.
CEO Bryan Clayton attributes his success to his willingness to try new things. He describes his company, GreenPal, as “Uber For Lawn Care.” Customers can use GreenPal to find local lawn care services, post pictures to collect bids on their lawns, compare prices and reviews, and book and pay for service — all from a single app. But GreenPal isn’t his first successful business venture. “I recently sold my previous company which I had built up to $8 million a year in annual revenue with over 130 employees over the course of 12 years,” says Clayton.
“People always say I was very lucky and fortunate to have sold that company and maybe I was, but I am not so sure,” he adds. “I think success always boils down to always staying on the move. Always be moving forward, always be trying things, always be doing different things, and as you are doing and trying and learning, luck just seems to happen.”
Entrepreneurs Connect With Their Users
As an entrepreneur, your success or failure depends on your clients, users or customers. In today’s consumer-focused business world, where a few bad reviews can take a major bite out of your profits, it’s easy to feel intimidated by customer feedback. But taking the time to connect and listen to your customers is one of the best things you can do to build loyalty and credibility.
Sydney Liu, CEO and co-founder of Commaful, understands the importance of connecting with users more than most. Commaful is a short story site with a mission to get people to read more, by making stories accessible. With Commaful, busy readers get to enjoy stories divided into bite-sized pieces on the go and writers can find an audience they can connect to. That community has been Liu’s greatest strength:
“Being user driven has been critical to the growth of Commaful. There are many ups and downs involved with building a startup, but being close with our users has really helped keep us motivated through the lowest of the lows,” says Liu. “Talking with users has shown us how much some people really love the product, which is incredibly encouraging. It also helps us understand what our users want.”
Having a vibrant community isn’t just about building a fan club for your app, however — it’s also about having an ever-present source of critical feedback. “The best habit I’ve built has been reaching out to users who stopped using Commaful every day to hear their feedback,” says Liu. “It’s led to many product changes that have significantly improved the product. I’ve found that constantly learning from our users and community is critical. Even having worked with our audience for a couple of years, we still learn something new every day.”
Entrepreneurs Love What They Do — In Spite of the Risks
Financially, most entrepreneurs take major risks, trading in a steady paycheck for an uncertain future, and spending their own capital on a project that may or may not pan out. Many end up living in poverty for years, or even putting their families through bankruptcy — for a project that may never succeed.
They also take other, more personal risks. They could have a key developer betray their trust by defecting to a competitor before their work is finished, learn the hard way that their heroic push isn’t enough to get a product to market before the competition, or even discover that the great idea they’ve dedicated a decade to is something no one wants. So why do they take all those risks?
One explanation is that entrepreneurs are risk takers or (in the case of the best entrepreneurs) calculated risk takers. They’re people who do their best to understand the risks and opportunities, and commit to the best option available. There’s still the question: why?
David Waring has built his success on understanding what entrepreneurs need to succeed. Building on his expertise in small business management and marketing, he founded FitSmallBusiness.com to answer the questions small business owners were always asking him with in-depth, well researched articles and buying guides.
So, what’s his answer to why entrepreneurs are willing to risk so much for their vision? Simple: because they understand the risks — and because they’re confident they can overcome them. “As an entrepreneur, you’re going to fail a lot more than you’re going to succeed. It isn’t really about failing, though, it’s ultimately about your ability to move from one failure to the next without losing enthusiasm,” says Waring. “Likewise, if you don’t believe in yourself and your ability to get your task accomplished, you’re not going to be able to convince anyone else that it is either.”
Of course, Waring also points out that it isn’t just all confidence and risk-taking. In fact, in his mind, the most important quality is a simple love for the proverbial game. “I get a kick out of working at and running a fast growing company, it’s like a drug for me.”
Entrepreneurs Know What Works For Them
There’s been a big debate about the role natural aptitude plays in the traits of an entrepreneur. The idea that some people are just born with a talent for business (or music, or engineering) was most famously challenged by Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 bestseller, Outliers. Gladwell advanced the intuitive idea that success requires a combination of opportunity and deliberate practice. He popularized the “10,000 Hour Rule” — the idea that being great in any field requires huge amounts of deliberate practice.
Gladwell’s interpretations have also been questioned — particularly in unpredictable areas like business entrepreneurship. One Princeton Study found that practice only determined 12% of performance overall, and only 1% in professional areas such as entrepreneurship. Does that mean you should give up if you weren’t born for business? Not if Bret Bonnet’s experience is anything to go by.
Bonnet is the co-founder and president of Quality Logo Products, Inc., a company offering “high-quality imprinted items at amazing prices.” QLP is focused on providing the best experience for the customer, with detailed product information, clear pricing and a customer service program that assigns each order a dedicated representative to ensure they get exactly what they need. Quality Logo Products is now a $40 million company with 110 full time employees, but Bonnet emphasizes that it wasn’t natural business skill that got him there:
“Many people think you’re born an entrepreneur — that it can’t be trained, learned, or taught. I strongly disagree. I was forced to become an entrepreneur when faced with the prospect of losing my house. Without a job and no opportunities in sight, I teamed up with my best friend from college and started Quality Logo Products.”
So if natural aptitude wasn’t the key to Bonnet’s success, what was?
“The single most important trait I had to learn in order to be a successful entrepreneur was the ability to not take everything personally. When you’re running a business the challenges you face are endless. Having the ability to separate work from your personal life is often unfairly dismissed in most circles. It’s not easy, and it’s something that can be difficult to learn, but once you do, managing the constant workload becomes a lot easier and your quality of life improves.”
Bonnet is right — the idea that entrepreneurs can afford a work-life balance is pretty controversial. A lot of successful business owners will argue just as convincingly that your business has to be your life if you’re going to succeed. But Bonnet got to know how he worked, and learned that maintaining boundaries between work and personal life made him happier and more productive.
Still, it doesn’t matter if you don’t agree: what ultimately matters here is finding what works best for you. Successful entrepreneurs understand what they’re good at, and what they need to achieve their goals. For some, that means strict hours and a deliberate work/life balance. For others, it means working weekends and obsessing over every detail. Neither guarantees success — but both methods can work for the right people.
Successful Entrepreneurs Are Problem Solvers
At its heart, new businesses are about solving a problem. Maybe you want to invent life-saving wearable technology to solve a major health problem — but maybe you just want to address the lack of good coffee in your neighborhood by starting a cafe. The important thing is that you’re making a product that addresses a real need.
Often, solving your central problem requires you to solve a lot of smaller problems along the way. You’ve got to figure out how to attract funding, build an effective team, create and refine your product, identify and connect with your market and so on. If you’re not motivated to learn new things and come up with new solutions, you’re not going to be a successful entrepreneur.
For Charles Dugan, problem solving is a kind of creativity. “The most important trait for being an entrepreneur in my opinion is creativity. Creativity helps you find solutions to difficult problems. I don’t necessarily consider myself a creative person in the artistic sense, but I do believe my ability to solve tough challenges has been a major factor in my success in business,” says Dugan.
Dugan is the Owner and President of American Image Displays, a company specializing in designing and distributing trade show display equipment. Problem solving skills are key to his business because of the complex, individual needs they address. Dugan’s company provides unique trade show displays to clients across the world, requiring a coordinated team of account executives, talented designers, and suppliers working behind the scenes to make it all happen.
Entrepreneurs Learn Constantly
Only 0.05% of startups get venture capital. That’s one out of every 2,000. That means the vast majority of entrepreneurs — particularly those who have never had a successful business before — are going to have to take a radical DIY approach, even when it comes to skills they have no background or experience in. But even for well-funded startups, the ability to learn skills quickly is one of the most important traits of an entrepreneur.
According to Ari Banayan, co-founder of Habit Nest, it’s crucial for an entrepreneur to ”have an open mind and constantly be learning.”
“If you’re not on the 8th page of Google when you’re researching a topic you want to master, you’re not putting in enough work,” says Banyan. “For example, if you’re trying to grow your social media channels, you should be spending hours upon hours reading articles and watching YouTube videos.”
Banyan should know — changing your life is his business. Habit Nest specializes in science-based tools and techniques to change ingrained negative habits, and build new, more positive and productive ones. Habit Nest offers the Morning Sidekick Journal to track your mornings and take concrete steps to improve your happiness and productivity in just three minutes a day, as well as a private group to help members hold themselves accountable.
As an entrepreneur, you’re always going be challenged by new problems — and you aren’t going to have the money to send them off to someone else. That means it’s up to you to take care of them — and that’s a lot easier to do if you’re constantly learning.
Find Out What Works For You
Every entrepreneur is as unique as the business they start. Likewise, no blueprint works for everyone — and no entrepreneur has the same exact success story. Listening to other business owners that can help you learn from their triumphs and mistakes, but you still have to strike out on your own. Keep working, keep listening, and keep trying new things until you find out what works for you.
Proto.io lets anyone build mobile app prototypes that feel real. No coding or design skills required. Bring your ideas to life quickly! Sign up for a free 15-day trial of Proto.io today and get started on your next mobile app design.
Let us know what traits you think are important for entrepreneurs by tweeting us @Protoio!