Born or Betterment: can you learn entrepreneurial attributes?

Giff Constable startups


Can you learn the traits of a great entrepreneur, or does it have to be built into your blood and guts?

That is an abstract question I pondered while reading and enjoying Mark Suster’s “Entrepreneur DNA” series. Doing a startup can be amazing, but it’s also a bit crazy.  Can you learn crazy?*  If you want to be an entrepreneur, do you need to be born one, or can you learn what it takes and mold yourself into the right stuff?

Mark started the series in December on Venture Hacks and he has been going into more detail on each of 11 traits he values on his own blog.  So far he has listed the following 8, and written up six.  I don’t know if this is interesting to anyone else, but I thought I would look at the “nature vs nurture” question across Mark’s favorite attributes.

  1. Tenacity
  2. Street smarts
  3. Ability to pivot
  4. Resiliency
  5. Inspiration
  6. Perspiration
  7. Detail orientation
  8. Decisiveness

1. Tenacity: Nature. I don’t think you can learn this.  Plenty of people are stubborn or determined, but startup tenacity requires a certain kind of determination, drive, and obsession in the face of bad odds and negative feedback that I suspect you have or you don’t.

2. Street smarts: Both. Mark is a little vague on his definition here — sort of a combination of instinct, sales ability/awareness, hunger, scrappiness, flexibility and more.  You can’t learn hunger to succeed and you can’t artificially invent a burning desire to prove something to yourself or the world.  It’s there or it’s not. A great entrepreneur also loves the dirty reality, not the theoretical beauty of his/her idea, and plants himself in the thick sucking mud of the market to make something successful.  Innate traits are necessary: liking sales (even if you don’t call it that), a strong independence streak, an appreciation for design, and a general distaste for the ivory tower.

However, I do think “street smarts” can be learned, and can grow over time.  Sometimes it might take a few tough lessons (designing a product with no customer feedback and watching it bomb), and sometimes just trying on new things. For example, many think they will hate “selling”, but come to realize that sales is everywhere (customers, employees, partners, investors), and then come to realize how satisfying it can be.

3. Ability to Pivot: Learnable. This definitely can be learned.  Quite often it is learned the hard way, i.e. by screwing up. I think it’s awesome that new entrepreneurs have such incredible resources in the entrepreneurial blogosphere to help them be more savvy on this topic right out of the gate.  The danger is that people sometimes take this online advice as rule-sets rather than guidelines to be personalized or at times ignored.  The art/skill/luck to the pivot lies in determining when to stubbornly stay the course and when to make a change. No book or blog can answer that for you.

4. Resiliency: Both. Mark writes, “Tenacity is about pushing forward every and not accepting “no’s” while resiliency is about taking punches every day and not falling down.”  Resiliency is not just about taking the punches and bulldozing your way through the inevitable bad times. It is also about having the desire and backbone to accept the isolation and loneliness that entails leadership during tough times.  You need to be the right kind of person, but I think that you can choose to *want* it, and when the shit hits the fan, decide to make yourself who and what you want to be.  I also think you can learn about resiliency from inspirational role models. This isn’t magic.

5. Inspiration: Learnable. Mark’s point is that you have to be able to inspire others, i.e. to infect them with your confidence and belief.  Some lucky people have this naturally — they were born with charisma and a personal reality-distortion field, but even these people work hard to perfect their talent.  I strongly believe that this trait can be learned by working with and studying those who already have it. It requires firmly deciding who and what you want to be.  What cannot be learned (or faked for very long) is *self-confidence*, which is a bedrock component.  Aside: self-confidence and arrogance are often confused, but I believe they are very different.  I prefer the former, although there are plenty of successful entrepreneurs who are the latter.

6. Perspiration: Not sure. This trait is intriguing to examine.  I *think* that an insane work ethic is something you can choose, although not everybody is born with the prerequisite obsessive nature.  Lots of people work hard, but where does the “whatever it takes” mentality emerge from? That’s the attitude you need, and it can be *fun*.  Sometimes it emerges from a love of the team, i.e. going to bat for the guys and gals in the foxholes with you.

When it comes to perspiration, past is not always prologue.  I’ve been trying not to talk about myself in this post, but I’ll share one thing here.  I had a crap work ethic in school (hated school and only got into an Ivy college because my mother kicked my damn ass), but upon my first exposure to a real startup (it was 1994 and I flew down to Austin, TX to interview at Trilogy), I discovered what I wanted to be, had to be, and a serious FIRE was lit under my ass.  I learned how much fun it could be to work like a maniac, but to this day, can only sustain it for an idea, mission, and team that I truly love and can believe in.

Perspiration and obsession are useful and necessary, but you have to be careful with the flame.  Not only can it be destructive on families, but you have to keep yourself and your people from burning out as well. I’m perpetually trying to figure this one out.

7. Detail orientation: Learnable. Mark has yet to write this one up, but I agree it’s important and I’ll jump ahead and say that I think this can be learned.  For some it comes easy, while for others it can take a few bloody lessons. Again, it’s not magic, it just takes discipline and prioritization.  I also think with the lessons of time you learn where *not* to be in the weeds, with a reminder-to-self that you aren’t infinitely scalable.

8. Decisiveness: Both. Mark’s post is forthcoming. My view on decisiveness is: 1. you have to be willing to make decisions with partial information and not be paralyzed by uncertainty, yet neither be hot-headed; 2. you need the backbone to make unpopular but necessary decisions; 3. you need the discipline to decide *not* to do things and keep your business focused.  One portion of this is probably inborn “nature”: the willingness to be disliked / unpopular.  However, I think that experience, character development, maturity and good mentors provide an understanding of the *importance* of decisiveness, and knowledge on how to better implement and explain your decisions.

9, 10, 11: TBD by Mark, but I look forward to examining them when he posts.


Final Thoughts

I had guessed when I started this post that many traits would be tied to innate character, but as I read it over, it seems that my conclusions are different.  Perhaps this is inevitable because of how I personally have matured with lessons both positive and painful about entrepreneurship from the past 15 years.  I look back at my earlier self and shake my head.  Life is a process of learning and improving.

I joked at the start that you have to be a bit crazy/broken to be an entrepreneur. Startups can be incredible, but it is a rough, risky road.  I suspect that the influx of “non-founder” MBAs into venture capital was a desire by many “un-broken” people to have a taste of the excitement of startups without the crazy risk. Unfortunately, I don’t think that was a trend that was good for venture capital or entrepreneurs.

For a great post on what startups are like, see Paul Graham (and my response here).

Lastly, someone asked Mark Suster what traits he disliked, and I thought I would include his response:

“arrogance, feeling that the entrepreneur doesn’t listen, hands-off on details, questions about trustworthiness, hasn’t researched his/her market, wildly unrealistic plans, etc.”