If you had asked me in my mid 20s if I thought I’d ever be successful or wealthy, I would have given a bold ‘OF COURSE!’ — but that would really just be my characteristic over-confident answer to hide what I really felt: that I was going to continue failing and be broke for the rest of my life.
Thankfully, things went the other way. I was able to start one of the fastest growing companies in the USA off a credit card, bootstrap the entire thing with no investors, and ultimately sell the business to tech giant Salesforce five years later. On the surface, it’s the entrepreneurial dream story and the best result I ever could have hoped for. Below board it wasn’t nearly as fun or sexy as it looked, but that is a story for another time.
“What’s Your Secret?”
For now, I want to focus on the most common and ridiculous question I get, and some deep implications that come along with it: ‘what’s your secret?’.
Here is the simple answer. There is no secret. There is no shortcut. Every person in the world knows the ingredients for entrepreneurial success: an obscene amount of hard work, relentless perseverance, overly high risk tolerance, an entrepreneurial brain, limitless confidence, a healthy amount of good fortune and more than a hint of insanity.
I know this isn’t what the holy-grail-seekers want to hear. I too wish there was a shortcut. And while there is a lot of fodder in the media today to give this false hope, I am here to tell you it doesn’t matter What 3 Things Elon Musk Does Before Brushing His Teeth or the ‘brilliant’ rationale behind Zuckerberg’s depressing wardrobe. That is all just fluff to try to make successful people look like superheroes who know something the rest don’t. It makes for scintillating reading and highly clickable headlines.
But it actually desensitizes the reality of the situation: these are freaks of nature who found the center of the most tricky Venn diagram—where an entrepreneurially predisposed brain meets a perfect market opportunity at a place in life where it can consume everything you do, wrapped neatly inside some old fashioned luck and good fortune.
Entrepreneur or “Entrepreneur”
Here is the harsh reality: 80% of what it takes to win the entrepreneurial lottery is engrained deep inside ones mind and cannot be taught or learned. The remaining 20% comes from starting, trying, failing and getting your junk kicked in until you have a chance to do better the next go around. And even then it requires powering through hundreds of ‘I lost’ moments before you’ll see real success.
This isn’t just my crazy theory. Smart people like Harvard Business School Professor Shikhar Ghosh have done studies to identify the exact reasons that 96% of businesses fail within 10 years. Many of the core reasons are simply non-entrepreneurs trying to be entrepreneurs. The remaining are a lack of experience.
The topic of what makes an entrepreneur is highly debated. Some believe it’s nature, some nurture. Most a combination of both. I am somewhat of a hardliner here. In my 20 years of entrepreneurial experience, and my interactions with thousands of ‘entrepreneurs’ over that period, I live heavily in the nature camp. You can track almost every successful entrepreneur’s journey back to examples of their mindset in their earliest years. We were the ones profiting on lemonade stands at age 5, selling burned CDs out of a backpack at 15 and had an impressive list of failures at 25.
This isn’t dissimilar from “superhero” professions like musicians and actors when looking at the .001% who succeed at a very high level. There is a reason why when watching every rockstar documentary in history there is the inevitable photo of them playing piano before they could walk or dropping out of school to pursue music. They had no other path.
Yet, we are constantly sold stories of people like Leonard Cohen who didn’t make it as a singer until age 50, playing in to the fallacy of nurture’s ability to lead to success. But the reality is Cohen studied music as a child, learned guitar at the same time and had deeply musically inclined parents. He was a musician at the core. He just didn’t find public success until he was older.
Entrepreneurship is seen completely differently today. While the unicorns like Elon Musk, Evan Spiegel and Mark Zuckerberg are (depressingly) the rockstars of today, what they are able to do is weirdly “approachable” in our society. If you were to ask a 34 year old forensic accountant if they could win an Academy Award for Best Actor, they would probably look at you strangely and give a fairly obvious “No.. I’m not an actor”. However, it seems that half the population has the next billion-dollar tech idea and everyone is an entrepreneur.
Can you imagine how crazy it would sound if your friend suddenly started saying he was going to be the next Al Pacino? You’d have him committed.
Thinking of starting a startup?
Here is some honest advice: don’t even try. Just stop. You aren’t an entrepreneur and you won’t be. You don’t want this life. You’ll fail. Over and over. You’ll sacrifice things you shouldn’t sacrifice. The natural consumption of the lifestyle will degrade you to a shell of a human and you’ll long for any sense of normalcy. Despite what we see on TV, it’s not private jets and glamour. It’s heartache, regret and the endless feeling of free-fall. You’d have to be *insane* to want to try this.
…still interested? Then maybe you’re the real entrepreneur. Stop playing house. Stop trying to mimic Bill Gates’ breakfast habits and get to work. That fire in your eyes is the key. Your ability to take advantage of that crazy brain of yours with a smile on your face already puts you in the .001%. Go get it.
I’ll be writing a lot more on the topic. Tell me what you want to hear about in the comments. Follow me to keep up.