Why do some entrepreneurs succeed where others crash and burn? Why do some people thrive with risk when others become paralyzed?
TIGER 21 (The Investment Group for Enhanced Results in the 21st Century) founder and chairman Michael W. Sonnenfeldt, SB ’77, SM ’78, set out to distill the essence of successful entrepreneurs in his new book, “Think Bigger: And 39 Other Winning Strategies for Successful Entrepreneurs.” The book draws on the experience of TIGER 21 members. Here’s what he found.
Grit trumps intelligence.
“This isn’t to suggest you can be stupid and be a successful entrepreneur, but the quality which is most predictive of entrepreneurial success is their grit — their ability to fail, pick themselves up, try again,” he says. “In the real world that I studied, the most impressive attributes were determination and the ability to go from one failure to the next and get it right the next time.”
Remember: Appearances can be deceiving. Many entrepreneurs failed multiple times before striking it big; only persistence allowed them to succeed. Consider Thomas Edison. “He had tried 1,000 different approaches to get a working light bulb. On the 1,000st time, it lit up. He was asked how he felt about failing 1,000 times. He said, ‘It took me 1,000 times to learn what wouldn't work,’” Sonnenfeldt said.
You’re never too smart for a mentor.
“If you take 100 people in any industry from least successful to most, overwhelmingly, those that are most successful will have had one or more mentors in their career,” Sonnenfeldt said. Mentors can impart specific skills, networking opportunities, life advice, or even simply the time to listen to you explore ideas that you’d never vocalize in solitude. As for finding one? Do it the old-fashioned way: Ask for advice.
Work for someone else first.
Before launching a business, it helps to have worked at a good company. “Great corporations develop great entrepreneurs,” Sonnenfeldt said. “When a young professional spends two to five years at a great corporate entity and learns some of the basics of how businesses should be organized, they’re short-circuiting a learning process that can be quite distracting if they go after it on their own.”
Coming from money isn’t always essential.
A trust fund is nice, but it’s not going to drive the most passionate entrepreneur. “This is more of a negative than a positive. There’s a type of ambition and skill that those of the most modest means grow up with, the ambition to prove to the world they can be successful,” Sonnenfeldt says. “People who grow up with deeply modest means are much more capable of being able to improvise and be the broken-field runner — someone who can jive left and jive right.”
Often, he sees children of successful self-made entrepreneurs who possess ambition but harbor less appetite for risk. Self-made entrepreneurs, on the other hand, have a burning passion that outweighs fear and hardship, he said. “They want to prove themselves. They have this kind of passion that allows them to live with the kind of fear that every entrepreneur has at 2 a.m.: Can I make payroll?”