Entrepreneurs fascinate me as they are a breed of risk takers. Some people find circumstances lead them to the edge and they have no choice but to flap those wings and survive. Others are adventurous, experimenting and constantly learning to perfect their technique and become the heroes we admire today. They have an inner drive to be in control, to change the world or to make a mark in history.
I saw a great gathering of this entrepreneurial breed in 2010 when the Abraaj Group organized a three day conference called the “Celebration of Entrepreneurship”. Approximately 2400 people attended this event and it was happening and full of energy. I, being an opportunistic researcher, thought it was a great place to start collecting data to understand what made these people “tick”.
There were two themes I kept hearing again and again– passion and fear of failure (more about this in another post). I stopped Arif Naqvi, , Rabea Ataya, and Jim Hornthal in the corridors of the event and all asked them the same question, “What were traits of successful start-ups and what did this mean when investors were looking for people with passion?” Not because I did not understand, but because I wanted to contextualize it and more importantly as an educator, I wanted to know if it was something you could teach. I spoke to incubators, investors, trainers and successful entrepreneurs. I attended talks by HE Sheikha Lubna Al Qassimi, Thomas Lundgren, Christopher Schroeder, Bobby Sagar and Fadi Ghandour and these are just a few. I spoke to students, wanna-be entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs who gave up, and successful ones.
I was struck by how difficult passion is to articulate. The best explanation many successful investors could give me about identifying this trait was that it was “gut instinct” and “the look in the eyes”. I got caught by one successful venture capitalist who said, “What are you waiting for Melodena – you have the look! Go – create something new”. So while it was flattering I have the “look” and I do create new things and very successfully, I still did not know if I had the answer to my research question!
Over the years I have been able to decipher that passion is a code word for willpower and commitment. It is the enthusiasm you have for your project that must be contagious. It is the confidence you have that you will get it done, no matter what. Most investors were very clear – change is inevitable. Even the best business plans will constantly have to evolve so an entrepreneur must believe in his idea to make it work. Arif said, “A great entrepreneur, is a risk-minimiser.” So it’s not so much about the big scary idea but the details on how you will make it work and minimize the risk associated with the big scary idea. You need to project that you can be in control of the situation because you have played various scenarios in your head and you know the market and the way it is evolving! Passion is not brashness, it is not empty words, it is directed. Being an entrepreneur means having the courage to take the plunge and not look back. There is no time for second guessing. Ideas are a dime a dozen and the market is quick to replicate. Passion is being able to communicate why you are the only one who can make it happen! A entrepreneur despite fear of failure, despite failure, will find a niche, and claw his way up and succeed.
Hence I come to the other side of the entrepreneurial sword. Purpose. Purpose gives energy and momentum. Too many entrepreneurs get stuck on the idea, which is vague and difficult to articulate and they refuse to test it by going back to basics – which is ‘Who will buy it and will I sell enough to be profitable’. Purpose is needed with passion as being an entrepreneur is not a 9 to 5 job! It is chaotic and all the legends in this field will tell you of the sleepless nights they had trying to manage cash flow even though on paper, revenues were flowing in. They will tell you stories of founder partners fall outs, of capital shortage that stunted growth potential and hours spent pitching and networking to get more money (not much family time)! Of competitors who came out of the woodwork and threatened their core business making them obsolete, about the nightmare decision to sell or dilute or worse needing to delegate and give up control or retain control and drown with the work! Success comes at a price, so the more a want-to-be start-up understands this, the better it is for the journey. While an idea is important, it is the person behind the idea who has a purpose who will make it succeed as he has focus.
So to quote a very successful billionaire “It’s the look in the person’s eye, you know, the passion in their heart, their ability to see right from wrong, their ability to focus on hard work, their commitment to make it happen”. On the question, ‘Can entrepreneurship be taught?’, I’m holding my reservations. I think you can enhance a skill; you can reduce the risk associated with entrepreneurship; and as wise people learn from other’s mistakes……isn’t that what education is about?