What does it take to be successful at entrepreneurship?
We’ve all heard the (questionable) adage, “99% of businesses fail,” and we realize there are several different reasons why this happens. It’s unfortunate, but hard work on its own doesn’t ensure a successful business—you have to start looking at the big picture, including the business owner’s personality.
Great entrepreneurs often share many personality traits. In this post, we’ve gathered some research and surveyed several entrepreneurs (and those who work closely with them) in different sectors about what characteristics they believe led to the success of their own business.
By cross-referencing the existing research from Harvard Business School and the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) with the entrepreneurs’ responses, we came up with this list of essential characteristics for a successful entrepreneurship journey.
The top 9 entrepreneur characteristics
When you’re building a brand new business, one of the first (and recurring) problems you’ll encounter is dealing with risk. From losing clients to saying no to a new opportunity to save yourself from burnout, risks are rife in the business world. The literature in this field is full of evidence to suggest that entrepreneurs have a higher tolerance for risk than general managers (NBER, p.26).
After all, building a business is a brave move, but risk-takers can weather the uncertainty and move forward.
One critical trait successful entrepreneurs must possess is a passion for their business. Without a genuine love for the work, many would-be entrepreneurs give up when the going gets tough.
Passion isn’t related to a skill or behavior, so the Havard study doesn’t include it as a dimension. However, plenty of research in entrepreneurship literature indicates passion is a critical antecedent for starting, maintaining, and succeeding throughout the entrepreneurial journey.
Passion for your new business can help you develop more confidence from the onset and help to convince others (like employees and investors) to join you on your journey.
For entrepreneurs to conceptualize and grow a business, they need a vision for where they want to be and how they’ll get there. Harvard Business School has conducted studies on the skills and behaviors of entrepreneurs and other business leaders, and their research suggests that vision and influence are essential skills for founders.
Surprisingly, we found that vision was only mentioned once as a key trait in the responses we received from entrepreneurs. Ross Albers of Albers & Associates offered a metaphor to explain his view:
“Any good entrepreneur is a hunter, not a farmer,” says Ross. “Hunters seek out new business opportunities. Farmers maintain the status quo. Hunters come up with new ideas. Farmers are slow to change what’s adequately working. Hunters have a vision, while farmers live in the past. Hunters adapt quickly.”
In order to be a good entrepreneur, you must be a hunter and not a farmer.
Ross emphasizes the importance of innovation to be a successful entrepreneur in his interpretation of vision. Yet, another critical aspect of vision is self-efficacy — the belief that you can follow through and turn your vision into reality. For that, you’ll also need the following trait.
The study from Harvard mentions entrepreneurial leaders have more confidence in their abilities than non-founders and managers in general. The research implied that confidence also supports other indicators of success like “comfort with uncertainty,” “ability to build networks,” and several others.
Entrepreneur Lindsay LaShell of Diamond + Branch suggested that balancing confidence with an open mind was a key to her success:
“One thing I always say about entrepreneurs is that the good ones are constantly fighting to balance unwavering confidence in their work with an open mind that recognizes when changes are necessary to unlock new opportunities. These two things are always at odds, but the successful entrepreneurs give some time to each side.”
Allie Decker of Omniscient Digital agrees with this sentiment.
“By far, the personality trait that has contributed to my success the most is executing with confidence,” Allie explains.
I used to think planning ahead and attention to detail were the most important—and they’re critical—but being able to execute and do so with confidence (and bravery through failure) is the key to scaling an idea to a real business.
The NBER study also mentions issues with overconfidence (p. 32), proving that vision and confidence need to be balanced with basic practicalities, like a realistic business plan.
Being motivated to work long hours without a guaranteed reward (and risking becoming worse off) is a common characteristic of successful entrepreneurs.
NBER research (p.11) surfaced an important aspect of this trait, “achievement motivation,” that drives successful entrepreneurs. The researchers of this study note that:
“It is frequently hypothesized that those with high achievement motivation are drawn to environments in which success is more closely attributed to their efforts, rather than a large institutional setting in which business success or failure is less a function of one’s individual efforts.”
The statement aligns with evidence from other studies stressing the significance of achievement motivation among entrepreneurs.
Another popular characteristic among our group of entrepreneurs was “the ability to make decisions” or “take action.” In the NBER paper, researchers describe this as having an “internal locus of control”: a belief that your own decisions control your life. But here’s what our entrepreneurs had to say about it:
Shane Pollard, CTO of Be Media, said:
“What I’ve noticed about our growth is that the biggest spikes come from when both I and the CEO got involved in projects that stalled or were unable to move forward. The trait I feel that really makes our business grow is the start-up mentality of taking action. When we need to move a mountain, we combine forces and push the project forward — no task is too small to tackle.”
Shane describes how the ability to make calculated decisions on faltering projects is key to moving forward with a business strategy.
Another entrepreneur pointed out a sub-trait of decision making, the ability to trust your gut and plow ahead based on “intuition.” Here’s what Nia Gyant, a B2C specialist copywriter said:
Systems and processes and data are touted as keys to success in business for good reason. Of course, they’re helpful and way better than ‘throwing darts in the dark’ as far as business decisions are concerned. However, intuition is just as critical and often overlooked as a key to success.
In many cases, it pays to go with your gut, which can eliminate analysis paralysis, boost efficiency, make it easier to differentiate your business, and so on. That said, one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned (and hardest skills to master) as an entrepreneur is this: Know when to go with your gut. Balance your instincts with more impersonal approaches to business, instead of allowing either to reign supreme.”
Nia’s observation of a “gut feeling” ties in well with the “Efficient Decision Making” dimension used in the Harvard study; entrepreneurs often have to make decisions even when faced with insufficient information.
Most of us know that it takes a fair amount of discipline to be your own boss, build a business from the ground up, and achieve long-term goals. This kind of discipline can look different for each of us, from developing an efficient workflow to keeping an eye on the cash flow.
Joe Sinkwitz, CEO of Intellifluence, equates discipline to “showing up”:
“Show up and put in the time. This is such an underrated concept, but showing up and completing the daily dirty work allows for incremental improvement. When compounded over a long period of time, doing the boring-yet-critical tasks can result in the outcomes a lot of entrepreneurs think they want.”
It’s vital for any entrepreneur to have solid organizational skills. We’ve all heard of the stereotype of the stressed and overworked founder. But staying organized can vastly improves the stress of starting your own business.
“Personally, I use tools like Trello, Notion, and Google Drive to make sure I always know what tasks are most pressing and what’s on my calendar that week. The frantic time trying to figure out what time that meeting is or where you put that spreadsheet is time you could put toward growing your business.”
While it’s great to spend a little time figuring out tools and getting organized, don’t forget to exercise discipline to do the work at hand.
Another common trait found among our entrepreneurs is curiosity. While neither Harvard nor NBER’s study referenced it, a study from Slovenia found a positive relationship between curiosity and entrepreneurial innovativeness. Francesca Gino also published a thorough article on the topic in the Harvard Business Review.
Entrepreneur Joe Sinkwitz talked about discipline, but he also confirmed the criticality of always being willing to learn (which is related to remaining curious about your field):
“Keep learning. Are you an expert in your field? Cool, keep learning. It’s impossible to ever know everything, but the more you read, experiment, and learn from others, the better your internal decision modeling gets.”
Joe wasn’t the only entrepreneur to mention curiosity. Saurabh Wani, who works closely with the automate.io CEO Ashok Gudibandla, noticed Ashok also exhibited this particular characteristic:
“After working with him for some time, I realized that he loves experiments and is not afraid to fail. Together we have worked on a lot of experiments every month and have failed in many.
This gives him (and our company) an edge, as we understand what works for us and what does not.”
As you can see, curiosity can help you discover new products and tools that will boost efficiency (such as using chatbots that engage customers) and help you improve yourself as a business leader.
Finally, according to our research, the most common trait an entrepreneur needs to possess is resilience (or very similar attributes, like perseverance). Since it isn’t a trait directly related to specific skills, the Harvard study doesn’t mention it. However, another study (PDF) from the Academy of Entrepreneurship Journal found that resilience does predict entrepreneurial success.
“Grit has helped me find the resilience I need when times get tough. Entrepreneurship is a daily roller coaster ride, and without grit and resilience, it can be easy to get discouraged. I personally believe in the power of tapping into that resilience to think laterally and find creative solutions to everyday problems.”
Another entrepreneur in the marketing sector, Brendan Hufford of SEO for the Rest of Us, also talked about the power of perseverance and balancing it with knowing what’s not working:
“Without a doubt, the most beneficial trait you can have as an entrepreneur is the ability to stay the course. Perseverance is talked about quite often, but the balance between not giving up and stopping when things aren’t working is seldom discussed.
Sometimes, entrepreneurs will keep bad things going because they refuse to “give up,” when in reality, they should stop because a particular tactic or strategy isn’t working. Both skill sets exist in conflict, and the entrepreneur’s ability to navigate the two is pretty essential.”
Chris Perera of Profile Cabinetry, one of the few non-software/consultancy-based entrepreneurs we spoke with, offered his insight:
For me, it’s resilience and ability to adapt. An entrepreneur’s journey is full of low points, and it’s a daily struggle to find success. An entrepreneur must be able to face adversity and not give up during challenging times. The ability to keep going will make or break you as a business owner.
“For example, thanks to the pandemic, like most small businesses, we have been hit hard with insane delays and all-time high material prices. (Not to mention the lockdown restrictions, which have crippled our supply chain and cut down our ability to work.) With sales on the decline and material prices rising, many businesses in our industry are shutting down.
The key to getting through this for us is adapting: finding new ways to acquire materials and adopting technology so we can do project management and consulting remotely. Being nimble (along with expanding our services) has enabled us to stay afloat.”
As Chris mentioned, being able to adapt to changes outside of your control is a key marker of resilience. In recent times it’s a trait that has been more important than ever for everyone, not just entrepreneurs.
You can learn to traits of successful entrepreneurs
Now you’ve seen empirical research on the personality traits successful entrepreneurs possess in spades and learned insights directly from some talented people. If, while reading about certain characteristics, you thought, “Oh, I don’t have that,” never fear. The good news is that you can learn!
Beyond the myriad of courses available to educate you on the business of entrepreneurship, the secret to mastering the craft lies in the act of doing and learning it firsthand. Most people don’t develop character traits overnight; you build them as you gain experience.