What Successful Entrepreneurs Have in Common: A Love Story


From Merriam-Webster:

Elite: noun \ā-ˈlēt, i-, ē-\

Singular or plural in construction :  the best of a class.

  • superachievers who dominate the computerelite — Marilyn Chase

Theories about what makes successful entrepreneurs successful are as varied as the entrepreneurs and critics themselves. “Brilliant” is a description frequently used to define successful executives like Steve Jobs, as are the words “leader,” “salesmanship,” “insight,” and “visionary.” But what about the people who are wildly successful and you would never-the-less describe them as “average”, “nice”, or “a good employee”? How did they become successful? They found their elite and explored it in a space they were passionate about. Between the military and working with and inside startups I have found three things in successful founders more often than not, and they tend to develop and apply these three things in this order: Identify objectively an elite skill, apply that skill to an industry or vertical they’re passionate about, become a super-achiever. Sounds simple.

In the last week I have read a dozen OpEds that used some variation of the tag line “Successful leaders do these {x} things every {insert duration of time here}” or “{x} things every successful entrepreneur knows.” Ironically no startup executive I know has ever written one of these articles. In fact, regardless of where the article is posted or printed very few of the authors have had any experience being a part of a startup let alone led one. A few days ago I had this conversation with Dan, a successful executive in San Francisco I am acquaintances with. Dan’s response was simple but to the point; “Find your elite. Find the one thing you’re better at than 95% of the population and do that. Repeatedly.” The response was so matter of fact I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I thought about the idea of what “elite” means, and how it applied to my personal journey as well as the journey of the successful leaders I knew personally. A pattern started to emerge- We all identified a skill we were exceptional at executing and then applied that skill to an industry we were passionate about. This combination of skill and industry became our trade, and we set about the task of becoming the best at it whatever “it” was.

Being elite doesn’t necessarily mean being the best. This is an important distinction to make. Most entrepreneurs are competitive by nature and believe they either are or will be the best at what they do, but being the “best” isn’t a requirement. You can be the 50th best tennis player in the world and you are still better than 99.99999% of the population. In the startup world you only need to be in the top 10% statistically to see significant success. Find the thing that you are innately good at. For some people it’s a specific skill like writing or manipulating complex numbers, for others it’s more difficult to define and is loosely identified as “connector” or “leader” or “convincing”. For me it was operations. I am uniquely and specifically good at managing large volumes of complex tasks and developing solutions that are repeatable. I am a world class Operations Chief. I like to believe I am the best at what I do in my space- Operations and planning in the biotech industry- and that may or may not be true. That’s subjective. What is objectively true is that I am absolutely good enough to be very successful in a startup in my space.

Studies show that if you exercise your talent frequently and deliberately with a high degree of quality you will refine your trade and become progressively better at it in a meaningful way. Make sure to integrate feedback loops that are immediate- good/bad/needs work etc. For me this means helping others in startups, pitching often and writing and reviewing business plans and SOPs. Since I write and work through problems in public there is virtually always feedback and I can’t hide from my mistakes. Generally I subscribe to the idea that quality should be valued over quantity. When making the choice to refine your skills make it a point to expose yourself to different people and groups that are willing to be honest. It’s better to fail 1,000 times at a high degree of difficulty than it is to succeed 1,000 times at a level of difficulty that could be managed by anyone.

Apply your skillset effectively by building a team around your short comings. As a rule don’t expect to be good at everything. Certainly, don’t expect to be good at everything across multiple industries. While people exist who excel at a world class level in multiple disciplines across multiple industries- Forbes, Carnegie, Jobs, Musk- it isn’t necessary. Instead focus on being really good at one thing in one industry and building a team to compliment your skill by filling the gaps in your leadership profile. If you have an excellent product vision but can’t sell, focus on getting the product built and shape a team that can help you market your product and take it to market. If you’ve never led before find a mentor to keep you on track; preferably one relative to your industry.

Identifying your niche is hard. Really hard. Most people never get that far, and it’s why I relied largely on passion to identify where I needed to focus my energy. My logic initially was that if I was passionate about an industry, product, or problem it would be easier to identify a need to fill. That’s what starting a business is really about; identifying a need and filling it. Years of conversation and experience have led me to the conclusion that my initial assessment was accurate. If I focused on a space I loved I would be inclined to learn everything possible about it, and really push to outstrip the competitive market place. Focusing on something you know and love will also keep you hungry. As long as you have a hunger for what you do you can feed on knowledge and remain educated and interested. Interest is critical; no more can you afford to build a great team, have a unique solution to only fizzle out and die, than you can to build a “me too” product in the first place.

Never stop pushing the limits of your skill, product or team; Be a super-achiever. This is perhaps the most difficult task to repeat and refine because it’s a marathon without a finish line. You and your team will have to remain hungry even in the presence of an abundance of food. If you rise to the top of your industry you will have to remain competitive with a desire to win even if the drive is to be better and more innovative than YOU are today. That’s a hard thing; not becoming complacent if you’re on top. Just because you’ve summited Everest doesn’t mean you can stop looking for a mountain to climb.

That’s been my experience in a nutshell:

  • Find a skill you can perform at an elite level by identifying what you are innately good at and refining that “thing”.
  • Build a team that compliments you by filling in the gaps in your leadership profile.
  • Apply your skill and team to an industry that you can remain interested in, have a deep understanding of, and in which you have identified a real need.
  • Become a super-achiever. Never stop pursuing the highest degree of success possible.

I don’t believe one has to be a genius or lead like General Patton to be successful. I believe you can be average with an exceptional desire to succeed and an idea that addresses a problem. There are no “10 things” every successful entrepreneur does or a road map to success. What I can promise you is that what I’ve outlined above are characteristics that have been identified in every leader I know. While these concepts may not be a guarantee they are building blocks to success and with them the odds of a desirable outcome are much greater than without them. Be objective, find your elite, be a super achiever, rule the startup world.




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