Is there some “secret sauce” to becoming an entrepreneur?

April 15, 2013Leave a reply

Recently, someone added me on LinkedIn and sent me a message with a series of questions about how to become an entrepreneur. Will getting a Phd help? How about an MBA? Do I need to be a programmer? Should I work in a startup first?

This email got me thinking a bit, and perhaps gave me some insight into how little the process of entrepreneurship is understood. I think people are taught the traditional “career path” in which good grades mean elite higher education which translates into a high paying job. But this gentleman’s very legitimate questions really drove the point home to me: many people have no idea what the path to entrepreneurship looks like.

Like many entrepreneurs, I’m a big believer in giving back, and so I took time to craft a message that I thought was what he needed to hear. Below are some excerpts from that message.

There’s no “right path” to entrepreneurship. Unlike consulting or becoming a lawyer, there are no “checkboxes” you need to hit in order to qualify. You simply need to have a passion for solving a specific problem, and a unique way of creating value (better, faster, or cheaper) that doesn’t already exist in the marketplace. You also have to be willing to bust your ass and face a tremendous level of uncertainty.

That’s it.

Entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes, from the 50 year old doctor who burns out and decides to start a vacation rental business to the 15 year old kid who learns to program some basic stuff and ends up selling his company to Yahoo! for $30M.

Will a PHD help you start a company? Maybe.
Will an MBA help you start a company? Probably.
Will either of those guarantee your success? Nope.

Entrepreneurship is risky business – but real entrepreneurs learn how to hedge and manage risk. In this regard, I strongly suggest checking out “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries or “The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur.” I haven’t read either of them personally, but I hear they’re excellent teachers of a lot of the things entrepreneurs like myself learn “from scratch.”

I began starting “companies” at age 4. Only at age 16 did I start one that really “worked.”
How did I learn? I failed. A lot.
I encourage you to embrace failure in your life as the only real teacher. Success teaches you one thing that works in a specific case. Failure, after dogged pursuit of a dream, teaches you what things really don’t work. Like making a product for a customer that doesn’t exist, or believing that customers will value a product simply because it’s new and different – without any added value.

You can work for a startup, you might learn some things, but that’s probably a little bit like studying a singer as they rehearse. You’re going to learn what works for them and how they do it, but you’re probably not going to get a lot better at singing. There are enough books and blogs out there that can teach you the types of skills that can be learned from observation.

The most important thing is this: Don’t be afraid to fail.

In summary:

  • Learn to look at problems that you understand as opportunities. Market inefficiencies (I wish there were a better way to keep in touch with my friends – Myspace is lousy) are the origins of opportunities. Ask Mr. Zuckerberg.
  • You learn much more through failure than you do through success. Dive in deep, though maybe not head first, and see what you can learn. You’re young, the stakes are incredibly low, and you’ll come out better either way than having pondered.
  • Make sure you’re creating real value for a real demographic. Can’t stress this enough.

Hope this helps,