Forget those entrepreneurial unicorn stories. The anti-social kid maverick who drops out of college to build a billion (or trillion) dollar empire. The lore that comes with such entrepreneurial giants packs good inspired backstories, but it is more inclusive to credit tenacious risk-taking personalities with an abundance of professional and personal experiences rather than, well, relying on the exclusive gamble of good fortune.
“If there was one thing I’d surely want to add to this list, it’s luck,” says retired entrepreneur Dave Glass. The former co-founder of merchant cash-advance firm Yellowstone Capital and a once-upon-a-time ago Wall Street trader who was infamously portrayed in the film Boiler Room states: “All the billionaires [can] deny it all day, but the ball just bounces the right way sometimes and anyone who doesn’t see it is being myopic.”
Key Characteristics of an Entrepreneur
Myopia aside, there are a few things that it takes to not just be successful but also build sustainable clout in the process. The makeup of a successful entrepreneur invariably includes: motivation, hard work, focused passion, nonconformity, leadership, street smarts, creativity, and yes, dashes of luck and good timing. For some this comes naturally, and for others some traits require nurturing. So, now let's dig in to each one to learn more.
A heavy dose of motivation is what can propel an entrepreneur from good to great, says Nicole Israel, founder and managing attorney of a trust and estates planning business. The local broadcast journalist-turned-lawyer credits her experience working in at a top Manhattan law firm while starting a family with her husband that really helped her find what was inspiring to tap into and recognize the qualities of a successful entrepreneur within herself. That combination of her life experiences helped Israel understand where she could most successfully direct her ambitions.
“I am incredibly motivated to serve my community, to help families protect their assets and children, while keeping them out of court and conflict,” says Israel. “I am very motivated to be so much more than a document pusher."
Greatness doesn’t come easy. Long hours, lots of brain power, and good old fashioned hard work are what it takes to move your business forward.
“It sounds so cliche, but it’s true—hard work has greatly contributed to our success as entrepreneurs,” says Jahan Mantin, the co-founder of Project Inkblot, a firm of designers and futurists. She and her co-founder, Boyuan Gao, work hard to integrate their Design for Diversity framework for public-facing brands and institutions looking to transform their office culture to be more reflective and inclusive of the world we live in, while better representing the positive qualities of a successful entrepreneur.
“In our culture, there is a real desire for instantaneous everything, but that doesn’t apply when it comes to starting and running a business,” says Mantin. “Hard work is what has carried me forth, coupled with a learning mindset. Just when you think you have figured one thing out, a new challenge comes along. [Part of that hard work is] knowing when it’s time to restore and replenish. This is crucial beyond financial metrics. [That kind of hard work] is what allows for sustainability and regeneration.”
An agile entrepreneur is a top-performing, effective entrepreneur—one who aims to elevate and push above and beyond the essential characteristics of entrepreneurship. This requires a level of passion and focus that supersedes conflict and unexpected challenges like, say, a global pandemic.
“You have to be able to be so committed to your vision that no matter what, despite all the challenges and let downs, you will get up again and keep going,” says Lisa Odenweller, the former founder of the organic superfood cafe, Beaming (now Earthbar) and current CEO of Kroma Wellness.
In March 2020, Odenweller and her business partner had finally finished creating their investor deck and financial model when the world shut down from Covid, forcing them to put everything on hold.
“Soon thereafter we met someone who committed to giving us the full investment and insisted that he be the only investor and pushed the others who were interested out,” said Odenweller. “He promised the world and committed to funding by mid-July, which, on the day he was supposed to fund, we never heard from him again.”
Odenweller was devastated. She had emptied her 401K to keep the business going.
“I had been rejected by at least 35 venture capital groups by this time as well and was beginning to doubt myself and whether the idea was as good as I thought. I woke up with anxiety every night, panicking about how I was going to pay rent and buy food for my kids.”
After hundreds of meetings, she got her first yes.
“The first yes was from Dick Costolo, the former CEO of Twitter. We have since gone on to raising $6.5M from some of the most influential, successful people in the country—which was never easy but I also never gave up. It is in those toughest moments that we are challenged to dig deep and really show how much we believe in our dream and how hard we are willing to fight for it.”
Nonconformity is where great risk resides, and it can also be from where some of the world’s greatest ideas emerge.
Briana Lyon, founder of California Wild Gardens, always struggled to conform to conventional job roles. When she first came up with her online startup—a packaged nursery-to-home garden service—she was all about thinking outside the box.
“I’d been working as a custom landscape designer in L.A. and I was sick of conforming to conventional standards, where custom yards started at $25K and my clients didn’t get to interact with or know much about the plants they were planting,” says Lyon. “I needed to find a way to make water-saving and environment-repairing yards sexy and available to way more people, at a way better price.”
Instead of working the industry standard and becoming a contractor managing big, fancy projects (a direction she knew would eventually burn her out and accomplish nothing for the environment), she explored wild ecologies, researching and developing pre-planned gardens that grow with less care.
“We can really green up the suburbs and cut out a lot of middle manning costs in home landscaping if we all do a little more nonconformist thinking about how a yard needs to look and be cared for,” says Lyon. “Something clean and calming to look at doesn’t have to be manicured and a monoculture to accomplish that. It just has to be designed a little atypically.”
Good leadership is having the foresight and clear vision, coupled with confidence, to make smart decisions quickly vs. compulsively in the face of opportunity.
“As the leader, I assess and take many calculated risks and critical decisions while also confidently tuning in to listen to my gut instincts,” says Jameela Jackson of Bonafide Media Group. Jackson began her career first as publicist, and through her range of clients and the shifts to individual brand growth during the pandemic, rose to the leadership occasion with Startup Grind Hollywood—an educational and social community for tech and entertainment entrepreneurs, startups and investors.
“My leadership is strongest when it comes to deciding when to follow my gut, when to seek strategic counsel, and when to go with data and statistics,” says Jackson about the characteristics of successful entrepreneurs. "A true leader always takes ownership of their decisions and the potential consequences—we accept the credit whether we win or lose. The right decision is always the one that comes with a sense of authenticity, followed by peace.”
Academia isn’t always the path to great entrepreneurial success. But that doesn’t mean education isn’t important—it means that for some, a university degree is not one of the essential chracteristics of entrepreneurship. Our resources for learning are vast. After all, it takes some shrewd decision making and confidence to drop out of college and trust that your own instincts and common sense are the right life move for you.
Margo Paine spent years waiting tables and working retail in spaces that she carefully selected to ethically reflect her values. She cares deeply about the natural world and used her own street smarts when developing her skincare company, Meduzza Olio Botanico.
“This taking of my time, being something of a late entrepreneurial bloomer, led me to really look at what I want my life to look like, and more importantly, what I do not want it to look like,” says Paine.
Paine refuses to waiver on integrity with regard to maintaining unadulterated purity in her ingredients. Rather than outsource, she chooses to blend by hand in small batches using minimal ingredients for maximum potency. With no degrees in botany or chemistry, Paine spent years studying, researching, experimenting and formulating on her own.
“I build out each idea from a foundation of truth and passion that I probably learned growing up in the desert,” says Paine. “My work is a full-sensory experience. The process is about so much more than the ingredients alone. There is a lot of that “street smart” instinct. Often I know the color that the end result will be before knowing how I will actually achieve it, or know the name of the product before the base ingredients have even been gathered. I’ve learned that my failures are temporary and just feedback of what doesn’t work, which really is telling me what actually does work.”
Starting a business begins with an idea. Sometimes it is a new idea, sometimes it is seeing an opportunity to make what exists better. Entrepreneurial creativity kicks in to uncover innovative solutions that appeal to consumers, breaking through the saturation that crowds every market.
Jimmy Aston, the founder of The Shasta, an adaptogenic mushrooms and medicinal plants e-commerce shop saw a number of ways he could creatively improve workflow, productivity and the bottom line.
Aston recognized he could elevate his business by making internal changes to how he sourced things, which in turn created a stronger consumer experience. There are a plethora of brands selling the same adaptogens, mushrooms, macas and other plant extracts as The Shasta, but there wasn’t a clear focus on quality and when there was, there was no one creating competitively lower prices despite the cost of the high quality products being so low.
“A lot of the competitors are taking advantage of people,” says Aston. “I saw that and creatively decided to make quality products at competitive, if not lower prices, my key focus. I use that understanding in my storytelling about my business.”
Aston made it a point to engage with the public at farmer’s markets, Burning Man and other places where the buying public was curious, but not thoroughly informed.
“I found myself sharing information and knowledge for people to learn more and feel more comfortable about these products,” says Aston. “They knew of them, but they really didn't know about them and I decided that even if they aren’t buying my product, I had a responsibility to educate them about these products because I believe in the positive results of them.”
“If you don't believe in your product whatever it is, you're dead in the water as a business, and that effects many of those qualities of a successful entrepreneur—your motivation, your hard work, your focused passion,” says Aston. “Establishing The Shasta apart from other brands in my industry was so important. I am not trying to reinvent the wheel. I am working hard to create a better looking wheel.”
A version of this article was originally published on October 13, 2010.
Photo: Getty Images