What Makes a Great Entrepreneur?

by Scott Edward Walker on January 19th, 2011

Introduction

I’ve worked with hundreds of entrepreneurs over my 17+ years of practicing law, and clients and friends ask me all the time: “What makes a great entrepreneur?  Why do some entrepreneurs make it and others fail?  Hey Scott, what’s the secret sauce to being a successful entrepreneur?”


I’ve given this issue considerable thought, and obviously there are lots of variables to success, including lady luck.  But, in my mind, there are three keys that stand above all others: guts, desire and passion.

(By the way, this post was originally part of my “Ask the Attorney” series for VentureBeat.  Below is a longer, more comprehensive version.)

The Three Ingredients to Success

#1 – Guts.  To be a great entrepreneur, you have to have guts – or, as we say in New York, cojones.

You have to have the guts to pull the trigger, to quit whatever you’re doing and to jump into the abyss (and believe me, this is easier said than done).  Most people just talk; few execute.

Guts is quitting Harvard, like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg did.  Picture that phone call to their parents: “Hey Mom, Hey Dad, I have some good news, I’m quitting Harvard.”

Guts is quitting a lucrative job on Wall Street, like Jeff Bezos did.  He was Senior Vice President at D. E. Shaw (the youngest in the firm’s history), and he had the guts to quit and to pack up his car, drive cross-country to Seattle and launch a bookstore out of a garage.

Guts is selling everything you own to raise money for your new venture, like Tony Hsieh did.  He sold everything (including his loft in San Francisco) — everything that was left from his $40 million exit from LinkExchange — and put the money into Zappos.

Successful entrepreneurs are different.  They have the inner strength to choose their own path – to follow their dreams – despite the pressure from their parents, or wife or boyfriend or whomever.

Entrepreneurship is a lonely, painful path; and it takes a lot of guts to choose it.

#2 – Desire.  The second ingredient to success is desire or, as Jessica Livingston, co-founder of  Y Combinator and author of the book Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days, calls it: determination.

How badly do you want it?  What price are you willing to pay?  How much are you willing to sacrifice?

To succeed at anything (sports, music, school), you have to work your tail off; you have to want it.  To succeed as an entrepreneur, you can multiply that by a factor of two.

You need to make your venture the number one priority in your life.  In short, you have to become obsessed.

Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks, said he didn’t take a day off for seven years when he launched his first venture, MicroSolutions; not one day off – not one vacation.  In fact, he said would spend all day banging on doors selling and at night he would pull all-nighters reading everything he could about computers – teaching himself.  Working by day, learning by night.  That’s the kind of desire that you need.

Gary Vaynerchuk (the founder of Wine Library TV and the so-called “Social Media Sommelier”) made a similar point in a speech at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York: “I used to work in a liquor store from seven in the morning until ten at night for seven straight years, and the only days-off I took were to watch the New York Jets.” [starting at the 3:20 mark]

That’s desire – and that’s what it takes to succeed.

#3 – Passion.  The third ingredient for success is passion – or maybe a better word is “love.”  You have to really love what you’re doing.  As startup guru Steve Blank puts it, “entrepreneurship is a calling.”  You have to find your calling.

And this means something more than making money.  It means finding your passion so, in effect, work turns into play; and instead of dreading Monday morning, you can’t wait to get to work because it’s what you love doing.

The best example of passion in an entrepreneur is Steve Jobs.

From the time he was a child, Steve’s passion was to build products that could change the world.

Indeed, when Steve was trying to convince John Scully, then the president of Pepsi-Cola, to head west and join Apple, he challenged Scully with the question, “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want to change the world?”

And then when Steve got fired from Apple, what did he do?  He launched two new companies: Pixar and Next.  Why?   Because that’s what he loved doing.  Then he came back to Apple and the rest is history.

You need to find what get’s you excited — your calling.

Conclusion

I know how hard it is to succeed as an entrepreneur, and I understand that there are a number of different variables to success.  But I also know, having spent years representing entrepreneurs, that if you have guts, desire and passion, your chances of success will increase dramatically.  If you want it, go get it.  Cheers, Scott

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