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Nature or Nurture: Can You Learn Entrepreneurial Skills?

We recently asked three successful small-business owners how they were able to learn entrepreneurial skills necessary to lead their companies.
March 09, 2016

You’ve probably heard that most businesses fail, but the reasons why are not always clear. Lack of managerial expertise may be one factor. After all, most inexperienced people who get jobs in large corporations aren’t put in charge right away. Rather, they may be given small responsibilities until they have sufficient business acumen to be trusted with larger ones. On the other hand, small-business owners are often overconfident that they’ll be great at everything at launch.

I recently asked three successful small-business owners how they acquired the right mix of entrepreneurial skills to guide their companies effectively: Michael Bremmer, CEO of in California; Clarence Bethea, CEO of in Minnesota; and Holly Epstein Ojalvo, founder of Kicker in New York.

What are the most essential skills a new business owner should have?

Clarence Bethea: [Small businesses] are always changing. Having the ability to listen to your users/customers and adapt to their needs is important from the start.

Michael Bremmer: The ability to listen to a customer and ask intelligent questions based on their concerns is a critical skill. And even more importantly, you need to have the willingness to walk away from opportunities that don't make sense morally or financially.

Holly Epstein Ojalvo: I’d say that you need a combination of flexibility and resilience. That's because you need to stay strong and focused, yet be responsive and adapt to changing circumstances and challenges. You also have to be resourceful. Few new business owners have ample resources, so you have to make a little go a long way. You definitely need to be a strategic thinker and mostly fearless, with a healthy appreciation of potential threats.

How did you acquire these skills?

Bremmer: I dedicate myself to improving my skills constantly, which means I've probably read a thousand books and studied 50 to 100 of them like college courses. 

Epstein Ojalvo: One key thing is to see yourself not just as an expert, but as a learner. I work really hard at learning things I don't know. I also stay focused on my mission and keep reminding myself of the sage advice to feel the fear and do it anyway. 

Bethea: I got thrown in the fire early and learned on the job. I also had great mentors around who I saw as great examples.

How can small-business owners supplement skills they don’t have?

Epstein Ojalvo: Two ways. First, surround yourself with colleagues and advisors who have complementary skill sets and knowledge bases. Second, make it a point to learn by reading articles and books, participating in webinars, taking courses and so on. We all have gaps. It's only a problem if you stay stuck in those gaps.

Bethea: Hire smarter! The faster you become self-aware, the faster you figure out that you don't know everything. Hire your weaknesses and get out of their way.

Bremmer: Today, we hold the world's knowledge in the palm of our hands. Go on YouTube, iTunes University, Skillshare or just Google to learn what you need. If you're watching something, learn something

Do you think a college degree is necessary to be a successful business owner today? 

Bremmer: It depends on what you want to do. I think formal education is good, but you can't teach perseverance, passion or desire. Those come from within and are required to succeed as a business owner.

Bethea: I don't think a college degree is necessary. There are so many great tools that people have ready access to in today’s environment.

Epstein Ojalvo: Education teaches you how to think, how to approach and solve problems, and how to understand and contextualize people and movements. College is also a good place for developing soft skills like meeting deadlines, dealing with conflict, collaborating with colleagues, advocating for yourself and navigating an institution's politics. Surely not everyone needs a college degree, but I do think higher education is generally valuable.

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Photo: iStock