I’ve been an entrepreneur most of my adult life. Recently, on a long business flight, I began thinking about what it takes to become successful as an entrepreneur — and how I would even define the meaning “success” itself. The two ideas became more intertwined in my thinking: success as an entrepreneur, entrepreneurial success. I’ve given a lot of talks over the years on the subject of entrepreneurship. The first thing I find I have to do is to dispel the persistent myth that entrepreneurial success is all about innovative thinking and breakthrough ideas. I’ve found that entrepreneurial success usually comes through great execution, simply by doing a superior job of doing the blocking and tackling.
But what else does it take to succeed as an entrepreneur — and how should an entrepreneur define success?
Bored with the long flight, sinking deeper into my own thoughts, I wrote down my own answers.
Here’s what I came up with, a “Top Ten List” if you will:
10. You must be passionate about what you are trying to achieve. That means you’re willing to sacrifice a large part of your waking hours to the idea you’ve come up with. Passion will ignite the same intensity in the others who join you as you build a team to succeed in this endeavor. And with passion, both your team and your customers are more likely to truly believe in what you are trying to do.
9. Great entrepreneurs focus intensely on an opportunity where others see nothing. This focus and intensity helps to eliminate wasted effort and distractions. Most companies die from indigestion rather than starvation i.e. companies suffer from doing too many things at the same time rather than doing too few things very well. Stay focused on the mission.
8. Success only comes from hard work. We all know that there is no such thing as overnight success. Behind every overnight success lies years of hard work and sweat. People with luck will tell you there’s no easy way to achieve success — and that luck comes to those who work hard. Successful entrepreneurs always give 100% of their efforts to everything they do. If you know you are giving your best effort, you’ll never have any reason for regrets. Focus on things you can control; stay focused on your efforts and let the results be what they will be.
7. The road to success is going to be long, so remember to enjoy the journey. Everyone will teach you to focus on goals, but successful people focus on the journey and celebrate the milestones along the way. Is it worth spending a large part of your life trying to reach the destination if you didn’t enjoy the journey along the way? Won’t the team you attract to join you on your mission also enjoy the journey more as well? Wouldn’t it be better for all of you to have the time of your life during the journey, even if the destination is never reached?
6. Trust your gut instinct more than any spreadsheet. There are too many variables in the real world that you simply can’t put into a spreadsheet. Spreadsheets spit out results from your inexact assumptions and give you a false sense of security. In most cases, your heart and gut are still your best guide. The human brain works as a binary computer and can only analyze the exact information-based zeros and ones (or black and white). Our heart is more like a chemical computer that uses fuzzy logic to analyze information that can’t be easily defined in zeros and ones. We’ve all had experiences in business where our heart told us something was wrong while our brain was still trying to use logic to figure it all out. Sometimes a faint voice based on instinct resonates far more strongly than overpowering logic.
5. Be flexible but persistent — every entrepreneur has to be agile in order to perform. You have to continually learn and adapt as new information becomes available. At the same time you have to remain persistent to the cause and mission of your enterprise. That’s where that faint voice becomes so important, especially when it is giving you early warning signals that things are going off-track. Successful entrepreneurs find the balance between listening to that voice and staying persistent in driving for success — because sometimes success is waiting right across from the transitional bump that’s disguised as failure.
4. Rely on your team — It’s a simple fact: no individual can be good at everything. Everyone needs people around them who have complimentary sets of skills. Entrepreneurs are an optimistic bunch of people and it’s very hard for them to believe that they are not good at certain things. It takes a lot of soul searching to find your own core skills and strengths. After that, find the smartest people you can who compliment your strengths. It’s easy to get attracted to people who are like you; the trick is to find people who are not like you but who are good at what they do — and what you can’t do.
3. Execution, execution, execution — unless you are the smartest person on earth (and who is) it’s likely that many others have thought about doing the same thing you’re trying to do. Success doesn’t necessarily come from breakthrough innovation but from flawless execution. A great strategy alone won’t win a game or a battle; the win comes from basic blocking and tackling. All of us have seen entrepreneurs who waste too much time writing business plans and preparing PowerPoints. I believe that a business plan is too long if it’s more than one page. Besides, things never turn out exactly the way you envisioned them. No matter how much time you spend perfecting the plan, you still have to adapt according to the ground realities. You’re going to learn a lot more useful information from taking action rather than hypothesizing. Remember — stay flexible and adapt as new information becomes available.
2. I can’t imagine anyone ever achieving long-term success without having honesty and integrity. These two qualities need to be at the core of everything we do. Everybody has a conscience — but too many people stop listening to it. There is always that faint voice that warns you when you are not being completely honest or even slightly off track from the path of integrity. Be sure to listen to that voice.
1. Success is a long journey and much more rewarding if you give back. By the time you get to success, lots of people will have helped you along the way. You’ll learn, as I have, that you rarely get a chance to help the people who helped you because in most cases, you don’t even know who they were. The only way to pay back the debts we owe is to help people we can help — and hope they will go on to help more people. When we are successful, we draw so much from the community and society that we live in we should think in terms of how we can help others in return. Sometimes it’s just a matter of being kind to people. Other times, offering a sympathetic ear or a kind word is all that’s needed. It’s our responsibility to do “good” with the resources we have available.
Measuring Success — Hopefully, you have internalized the secrets of becoming a successful entrepreneur. The next question you are likely to ask yourself is: How do we measure success? Success, of course, is very personal; there is no universal way of measuring success. What do successful people like Bill Gates and Mother Teresa have in common? On the surface it’s hard to find anything they share — and yet both are successful. I personally believe the real metric of success isn’t the size of your bank account. It’s the number of lives where you might be able to make a positive difference. This is the measure of success we need to apply while we are on our journey to success.
Naveen Jain is a philanthropist, entrepreneur and technology pioneer. He is a founder and CEO of Intelius, a Seattle-based company that empowers consumers with information to make intelligent decisions about personal safety and security. Prior to Intelius, Naveen Jain founded InfoSpace and took it public in 1998 on NASDAQ. Naveen Jain has been awarded many honors for his entrepreneurial successes and leadership skills including “Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year”, “Albert Einstein Technology Medal” for pioneers in technology, “Top 20 Entrepreneurs” by Red Herring, “Six People Who Will Change the Internet” by Information Week, among other honors.