Work provides many people with the primary meaning for their lives. Surveys indicate that most students want interesting, secure, and remunerative careers. Many also seek jobs that reward hard work with rapid advancement or that contribute to social well-being. Finding “the right job” may entail a little job hopping, but many people still spend most of their working lives employed by one large firm. With luck, it has a good pension plan.
Successful entrepreneurs, however, often march to the beat of their own drummers. Many seem misfits early in their careers, losing one job after another because they are not team players. Most highly successful entrepreneurs equate compromise with losing and will do almost anything to get their own way. People afflicted with personalities that conflict with large organizations often express desires to “be my own boss,” but few who go off on their own enjoy much success. Indeed, most who eventually succeed do so only after a series of failures. Overstating how devastating bankruptcy can be is difficult, especially for entrepreneurs who stake their dreams on the success or failure of an enterprise.
Several characteristics seem to separate highly successful entrepreneurs from most small proprietors or heads of giant corporations:
Vision and timing. Entrepreneurs see opportunities where others see only problems. Being in the right place at the right time is often a key. Different people interpret the same complex facts differently. Successful entrepreneurs tend to organize information so that solutions seem obvious. Their solutions may improve quality in existing goods, cut production costs, or new products may be developed and introduced to the marketplace.
Conviction and action. Entrepreneurs act when they perceive a problem. Other people may see solutions, but fear of losing regular paychecks prevents pursuit of their ideas. Entrepreneurs tend to have powerful egos; they want to leave their marks on the world.
Bearing of risk and uncertainty. Successful entrepreneurs typically have such faith in their plans that they are willing to risk all their time and capital (and, where possible, other people's time and capital), rejecting the financial security most people seek.
Workaholism. Most people want high income from a job that allows leisure every evening and on weekends and regular vacations. A 40-hour, 9-to-5 job is not a goal of most successful entrepreneurs, some of whom put in 100+ hours per week for decades.
G.L.S. Shackle, a famous economist, describes enterprise as “action in pursuit of the imagined, deemed possible.”* Entrepreneurs imagine alternative uses of resources, and by organizing resources to match their visions, they alter the course of history. If this brief discussion has not squelched any desire you might have to be an entrepreneur, then you need to watch for opportunities to provide things that people want, be willing to absorb incredible amounts of risk, and work extraordinarily hard. Then pray for luck.
FOOTNOTE *: Robert F. Hebert and Albert N. Link, The Entrepreneur, “Forward” by G.L.S. Shackle (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1982).