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12/23/2013
10:28 AM
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What Type of Entrepreneur Are You? Dumb Question

I'm sick of tests claiming that certain traits can make or break an entrepreneur.

Dozens of online articles and tests purport to reveal what kind of entrepreneur you are. Give them 20 minutes, and they will reveal your entrepreneurial category. Are you an Opportunist (Richard Branson), Innovator (Mark Zuckerburg), Darth Vader (Al Dunlap)?

The assumption behind these tests is that entrepreneurs are born, not made. As a third-generation entrepreneur, I admit it's comforting to believe I'm genetically encoded this way. I'm in. You're out. (You can stop reading now.)

But what we are really talking about here is eugenics -- identify a few desirable traits and, voila, the birth of an entrepreneur. Following this logic a bit further, we should expect to find future venture capitalists requesting a DNA sample as part of due diligence. Missing the SNPs for curiosity, risk-taking, creativity, boldness? Say goodbye to your funding!

So, let's dig into this logic. Do all entrepreneurs have these commonly cited attributes? Hardly. Many entrepreneurs emerge first out of need, such as a chronic unemployment, and grow into successful business people. Worse yet, some of these "core" traits are gender-biased. Thanks to Springboard Enterprises, a venture catalyst of women-led startups, we have learned over the last 12 years that women founders tend to be far less risk-taking than their male counterparts. It's one of the reasons why 80% of Springboard 500+ companies are still in business.

[Are women the answer to the data scientist shortage? See Analytics: Where The Girls Are.]

So what do entrepreneurs have in common? I think there are some common behaviors. Unlike our peers, we are willing to endure discomfort for unreasonably long periods of time. Our success often comes from our inexplicable need to stay the course until the market (luck) turns in our favor. Once our hard effort (that's table stakes) happens to align neatly with an expanding market, we look like mad geniuses... and then we clean up our entrepreneurial narrative in post.

So if there is one test that may be valid here, perhaps it's the marshmallow test. The test was part of a longitudinal study that tracked 5-year-old children after they showed the extraordinary ability to NOT eat a marshmallow for 15 minutes. Their ability to endure the discomfort of self-denial for an unreasonably long period of time -- 15 minutes for a five-year-old child is ridiculous -- corresponded to higher SAT scores and less likelihood to obesity and drug addiction.

Now that I think about it, though, I would have failed the marshmallow test miserably at 5, as would have most entrepreneurs I know, since they tend not to be the very best rule followers. Perhaps tolerance for discomfort can be learned after all. 

E. Kelly Fitzsimmons has founded, led, and sold several technology startups. Currently, she is the co-founder and director of HarQen and co-founder of the Hypervoice Consortium.

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pcalento011
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pcalento011,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/7/2014 | 11:37:38 PM
Commonalities make us uncomfortable, but patterns inevitable
Nobody wants to be placed into a bucket, whether or not it is justified ... particularly those who create "the new". While a test, isn't probably the best way to determine who will be an entrepreneur, ADAPTABILITY is a common trait. Enterpreneur = Ability to pivot when needed.
Kelly Fitzsimmons
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Kelly Fitzsimmons,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/26/2013 | 3:58:07 PM
Re: Ambiguity
I agree that being an entrepreneur requires risk-taking - absolutely.  What constitutes risk is quite personal, however. 10 years ago I met a gal who aspired to be the next CEO of Oracle. Staking her career on that outcome sounded far more risky than anything I've ever tried.  
Kelly Fitzsimmons
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Kelly Fitzsimmons,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/26/2013 | 3:37:42 PM
Re: What makes an entrepreneur? Grittiness!
Balance is key! My early mentor was a great entrepreneur - George Dalton, founder of Fiserv.  I think George took to me, in part, because I am boundless optimitist... just like he was.  (Sadly, we lost George in 2011.)  I was fortunate to have George on my first board of directors and recall him saying -- in a fit of well-deserved frustration -- "Kelly, you need a dark cloud." Behind the scenes of George's 90+ acquisitions was his trusted team and advisors, who challenged him on everything.

It was great advice that I have since implemented consistently.  Yet, be warned - getting that balance right is devilishly hard. To help me identify my dark cloud and other important team gaps, I have used "Now Discover Your Strengths" and its StrengthFinders 2.0 test.  I know the test has really nailed someone when that person is disappointed by the results. For example, I felt cheated when "Positivity" came up for me. It was only much, much later that I realized that particular strength had helped me have the resilience to stay in the discomfort of being an entrepreneur for an unreasonably long period of time. 

So, I would argue that there are tests that can be quite helpful.  The key is how well-researched and scientifically sound the sample.  These tests tend not to be free nor advertised like low mortgage rates on the Internet.    

 

 
Alison Diana
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Alison Diana,
User Rank: Moderator
12/24/2013 | 11:42:48 AM
Re: What makes an entrepreneur? Grittiness!
I would agree, @cbabcock. Also, many entrepreneurs partner on a startup so the dynamics change then, too, like in any other relationship. Even if it's not a 50/50 partnership, the people an entrepreneur chooses to surround themselves with helps or breaks a business: if an exec is overly optimistic, for example, they'd need someone to balance them with a more realistic outlook on the world. If someone is uber creative, perhaps their counterpart should be more of a logistics and day-to-day business person. Many successful companies began with those roots. Being entrepreneurial is part magic, part science, and part chemistry. No test needed.
cbabcock
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cbabcock,
User Rank: Author
12/23/2013 | 4:23:25 PM
What makes an entrepreneur? Grittiness!
Kelly is right to distrust the "entrepreneur" tests. Another fun exercise in superficiality. Entrepreneurs in different areas succeed for different reasons. There is probably a set of characteristics that are reflected in many entrepreneurs, but there is no single, short list of traits that is going to cover all cases. I think "grittiness" or a willingness to stick to a goal despite problems and setbacks that are better defined than the rewards is one quality, among several, that helps define entrepreneurs.
RobPreston
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RobPreston,
User Rank: Author
12/23/2013 | 2:34:21 PM
Re: Ambiguity
I think any true entrepreneur has to have a strong stomach for risk. Financial risk. Career risk. I can't imagine your being a successful entrepreneur if you're risk averse.
Shane M. O'Neill
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Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
12/23/2013 | 2:31:38 PM
Staying optimistic
Entreprenuers come in all flavors. Yet I imagine that persistance and optimism are common traits across the board. But how do you hold on to those traits when the inevitable tough times come? Being optimisitic is one thing -- staying optimistic is harder.
Brian.Dean
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Brian.Dean,
User Rank: Ninja
12/23/2013 | 2:21:34 PM
Re: Ambiguity
They can be many definitions of an entrepreneur, one such definition deals with information. Information is the key to any successful endeavor, hence collecting as much information as possible is important but like the Millennium Challenge 2002 pointed out that too much information can paralyze as well, I think a person that can recognize the stage at which collecting information should be substituted with implementing information, would be a good entrepreneur. 
ChrisMurphy
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ChrisMurphy,
User Rank: Author
12/23/2013 | 12:46:52 PM
Ambiguity
I once heard a successful entrepreneur challenge a group of MBA students on how good they are at an essential skill: dealing with ambiguity. That seems pretty closely related to the enduring discomfort trait mentioned here, as in, enduring the discomfort of not knowing exactly how you'll get this product shipped in time, keep employees happy, make payroll ...     
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