How to think like an entrepreneur

After a successful career as an entrepreneur in television and digital media, Carolina alumnus and teacher Bernard Bell is sharing his tips for learning to think like Steve Jobs.

Bernard Bell
Bernard Bell, the executive director of the Shuford Program in Entrepreneurship, poses for a portrait on Polk Place on October 28, 2019, on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

You’ve heard the legend that Steve Jobs started Apple Computer in a garage. But how did he go from technology hobbyist to CEO of the world’s largest tech company?

Bernard Bell ’82 ’91 (MBA), executive director of Carolina’s Shuford Program in Entrepreneurship, knows a thing or two about how to think like Steve Jobs. The first step, he said, is getting comfortable with failure.

Fail your way to success.

After a 20-year career building major television networks like HGTV and Discovery, Bell now teaches students in the College of Arts & Sciences how to develop an entrepreneurial mindset. And like Steve Jobs, he understands the value of failure.

You don’t have to have a brilliant idea to start thinking like an entrepreneur. To Bell, true creativity starts with building your own sense of self, and that comes from learning who we are in our “valley moments” — the moments when we doubt ourselves along the way.

Embrace your inner nerd.

Being successful in business starts with understanding and embracing who you are, Bell said.

“When I was in college, I was a nerd,” Bell said. “But you learn later in life that it’s the nerds who are running the world.”

Bell tells his students that everybody deals with insecurity, and that vulnerability is an asset in building teams.

“Most people think entrepreneurship is about content, and it’s not,” Bell said. “We have to get the content right, but it’s really about feeling valued, building teams, and having spirit and true empathy. It’s about understanding yourself so you can understand everybody else.”

Practice conflict resolution.

While it may seem like a life skill rather than a business skill, Bell encourages his students to get good at handling conflicts.

“Conflict resolution has nothing to do with entrepreneurship, but it has everything to do with entrepreneurship,” he said. “It’s an important part of building teams, and you can’t build scalable companies without a team.”

Let the customer decide.

Once you have an idea, Bell recommends talking to your future customers, revising your concept and talking to your customers again.

“You need to find out, is the business idea valuable? Is it marketable? Is it scalable? Is it monetizable?” he said. “You start at the top of the funnel with very little information, so you question your customer base, you prototype, you question, you prototype. And then we finally have a product that the market tells us we can sell.”

Be open to ideas.

Last but not least, Bell suggests being ready to spot a new opportunity at any time.

About 4% of ideas will make it out of the starting gates, Bell said, so don’t give up. Keep your eyes open for new ideas, observe consumer behavior, and ask for feedback from mentors and customers. Then you can adapt from there.

While the entrepreneurial landscape might be intimidating to some, Bell hopes to always leave his students with the belief that if you work hard, have integrity, and treat people with respect, everything else will take care of itself.

It is Global Entrepreneurship Week, and Innovate Carolina is hosting a series of events and activities to explore and engage in entrepreneurship. Visit Innovate Carolina’s website for information.