Start-Ups

Are entrepreneurs born or made? A four-step litmus test

The demand for entrepreneurial skills have never been higher. Here are four ways to figure out what you need to succeed as an entrepreneur.

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The question of whether or not one can "learn" entrepreneurship is, perhaps, one of the most hotly debated ideas in the startup scene today. Many founders and investors alike see entrepreneurship as something one is born with, something that is native to one's personality.

"I suspect you have to be born with a certain irrational lack of appreciation for how challenging it is to start a new business and how unlikely success will be," said Jonathan Abrams, founder of Nuzzel.

Others, however, see entrepreneurship as a set of skills and thought processes that can be taught and learned. Regardless of whether or not entrepreneurship can be taught, it can definitely be tested. Being a successful entrepreneur lies in understanding your skills and developing a mental framework for responding to specific situations.

Matt Mickiewicz, CEO of Hired, said, "In my opinion, there's way too many 'wantrepreneuers' -- people who start companies because they want to be a founder or because its trendy, or because they think they will get rich. It's important to be honest with oneself about the fundamental motivations for starting a company."

If you want to break out on your own as an entrepreneur, you first have to determine whether or not you are willing to put it all on the line. Here are four ways you can put your entrepreneurial spirit to work and see whether or not you could make it as a founder.

1. Get a job

One of the best things you can do to test your potential as an entrepreneur is to work for a startup, especially as an early employee. Entrepreneurs in early stage company have to wear many hats, and all early startup employees have to respond to many different challenges. You'll be forced into a sense of professional flexibility that is difficult to replicate outside of the environment provided by a startup. While it may seem fickle to recommend getting a job before you know whether or not you have a drive to be an entrepreneur, you can test this safely from a corporate job as well.

Brooks Mitchell, professor emeritus at the University of Wyoming and founder of Snowfly, who believes that entrepreneurship cannot be taught said that one of the best things you can do is to get a job at a big company, that is the real test. Many entrepreneurs will become unsettled very quickly in the process.

"When I got out of school in 1961, I got a degree and got a great job with a great company, Texas Instruments and then Pepsi, and I thought I was mentally ill because I said, 'I can't do this,'" Mitchell said.

Working a regular job as an entrepreneur won't be a total bust, though. It will also give you a background in business that you can use to help when you inevitably set out to found your startup.

2. Build a product

If you can't find a startup that you want to work for, try building a product on your own.

"You don't necessarily need to learn how to code, but you should learn what it's like to work with engineers," said Sunil Rajaraman, CEO at Scripted. "For a crash course on this, once your wireframe and specs are complete, hire a developer using a service like oDesk and work with that developer using tools like Pivotal tracker. This will give you the opportunity to learn engineering parlance, work using agile methodologies, and get a minimal viable product up and running. With a solid minimal viable product, and if you have a good vision you will be able to attract engineers to work with you. They'll see that you've put in the work, and they'll respect you for that."

For some people, the only way to learn entrepreneurship is to do it. Entrepreneurs have the potential to anti-authority, so it can be difficult to learn from someone else. For those people, they have to teach themselves how to make it happen. In the sense of pursuing something regardless of obstacles, stubbornness can be a good thing.

3. Go to school

There is a still a strong anti-MBA bias among many Silicon Valley thought leaders, but the concept of an MBA in entrepreneurship is growing and many would-be founders are enrolling in top MBA programs with the hopes of starting their own companies.

The main criticism of most MBA programs is that they teach students how to limit themselves by teaching them to think inside the box. By teaching traditional business practices and focusing heavily on management theory, many students learn skills that will not translate well to working at a startup. However, many MBA programs are adding entrepreneurial tracks and it can be a good place to find like-minded people.

When Mitchell was slowly losing his mind working in corporate America, he said that he needed someone who could show him what an entrepreneur looked like. Later, when Mitchell was teaching his classes on entrepreneurship he would often tell his own story of entrepreneurship or bring in guest speakers who would tell their startup stories, showing his students what it could look like.

According to Mitchell, school only works if the person teaching the class is an entrepreneur, as folks with an entrepreneurial bent will be more likely to listen to someone with real life war stories.

4. Fail

Failure is founder fuel, and how you react to it will determine how ready you are for entrepreneurship. You have to put yourself in seemingly impossible situations and test your ability to find a new path. One of the ways you can easily run into failure is fundraising.

"With regard to fundraising, and other skills related to the venture side, that's a lot harder," Rajaraman said. "I wrote a little bit about what it's like to raise a seed round. Bottom line, get used to rejection. Fall down seven times, stand up eight. The perception outside of the valley is that it's somehow 'easy' to raise money. Complete bullshit, and the only way to figure out what it's really like is to get into it yourself."

So, give it a shot and be ready for the consequences. Ron Meritt, president of Olens Technology, has faced failure when marketing some of his inventions and he said that the pain of failure is always an opportunity for growth,

"You need to listen to people and you need to get that feedback, and don't get offended," Meritt. "Every time somebody complains, it's an opportunity."

According to Mickiewicz, entrepreneurs can learn about failure from a host of other experiences as well.

"Entrepreneurs have to learn sales, learn rejection, learn persistence," Mickiewicz said. "Things like selling door to door or cold calling or even running a marathon, would be great practice."

What do you think?

We want to hear from you. Is entrepreneurship something you can learn? Are there other ways one can test their potential as an entrepreneur?

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About

Conner Forrest is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. He covers Google and startups and is passionate about the convergence of technology and culture.

3 comments
Eamon_Walsh1
Eamon_Walsh1

Kinda find myself midway between the suggestions. Don't believe going to B-school does much beyond formalizing the natural understanding and business skills. The best of them really don't need to go there; it really produces corporate workers, than real entrepreneurs. Getting a job, that too in a start-up will whet your appetite partially, stoke some of your innovative ideas, but that is still a limited ground. Building your own product and failing often, are the real lessons. Once you build something, market it, develop and design it to ensure consumption, troubleshoot issues and handle customer service - there is little you are alien to while running your own shop. And yes, if you're not failing enough, you can't be ravenous enough to succeed. Failures teach you to identify where you can add value to a saturated market, since it teaches you to manage with limited resource and time. 

streaming7
streaming7

I think they are born...I have talked to people in the pass about starting a business and they just cannot see it. They prefer to complain about their jobs rather than do anything about being their own boss. Maybe if people are introduced or have members of their families in business they will try it...not too sure some would even try it in that situation.

Nettleship
Nettleship

We're born.  I've been a mentor to one of the earliest of the Entrepreneurship programs at USC and the kid either was or was not an entrepreneur at heart.  I loved, loved, loved the first comment (from Mitchell).  I did 'ok' in my very first job as it was almost autonomous work with coaching from my boss.  But then our grant funding was gone and I had to get a job in the 'real world'.  18 jobs in 2 years before I found another autonomous job but when it did not come with coaching I fretted for two years then started a most unlikely business (for a woman in the 1960s).  Started with $400 and a landlord who agreed to take our office last month's rental deposit in increments.  The rest became history.  

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