We are all self-employed; even as employees of a firm, we are still primarily personal career managers. Trends toward downsizing and outsourcing will almost certainly lead to smaller companies utilizing networks of specialists. Fortune magazine suggests that “Almost everyone, up through the highest ranks of professionals, will feel increased pressure to specialize, or at least to package himself or herself as a marketable portfolio of skills.”
How marketable is your portfolio of skills? Many think they have several years’ experience, when what they really have is one year’s experience several times. Are you continuing to learn, and keeping up with developments in your field? The best approach to preparing for an entrepreneurial career is often to find some aspect of your field in which you can become expert.
The “spark” for many entrepreneurs is seeing an opportunity that doesn’t yet exist. Ted Turner, for example, launched CNN because he perceived that people wanted more television news than they were being offered. It took a lot of patience on Turner’s part to realize the vision, but he had read the market in a way that few “experts” did at the time.
In realizing the promise of CNN, Turner demonstrated another facet of the entrepreneurial spirit, persistence. There are a lot of bright ideas that never reach fruition; taking a “raw” idea and converting it into a successful business model is very hard work.
And that work never stops. No matter how innovative your idea, the competition is always just behind you. With anything less than constant creative effort on your part, they may not stay behind you.
Are you still with me? Here is where I reveal why everyone isn’t an entrepreneur:
No opportunity is a sure thing, even though the path to riches has been described as, simply “…you make some stuff, sell it for more than it cost you… that’s all there is except for a few million details.” The devil is in those details, and if one is not prepared to accept the possibility of failure, one should not attempt a business start-up.
It is not indicative of a negative perspective to say that an analysis of the possible reasons for failure enhances our chances of success. Can you separate failure of an idea from personal failure? As scary as it is to consider, many of the great entrepreneurial success stories started with a failure or two.
Some types of failure can indicate that we may not be entrepreneurial material. Foremost is reaching one’s level of incompetence; if I am a great programmer, will I be a great software company president? Attitudinal problems can also be fatal, such as excessive focus on financial rewards, without the willingness to put in the work and attention required. Addressing these possibilities requires an objectivity about ourselves that not everyone can manage.
Other types of failure can be recovered from if you “learned your lesson.” A common explanation for these is that “it seemed like a good idea at the time.” Or, we may have sought too big a “kill;” we could have looked past the flaws in a business concept because it was a business we wanted to be in. The venture could have been the victim of a muddled business concept, a weak business plan, or (more often) the absence of a plan.
When small businesses fail, the reason is generally one, or a combination, of the following:
In a recent Wall Street Journal article titled “Why My Business Failed,” Ken Elias cautions that “even if the concept is right, it won’t fly if the strategy is wrong.” Still, on being asked whether he would start another business today, he answers: “Absolutely. The experience is fabulous, exciting and the possibility of success is always there.”
Richard Branson, billionaire founder of Virgin Records and Virgin Atlantic Airlines, may be better known for his efforts to circle the globe in a hot-air balloon than for his business successes. He suggests that “Being an adventurer and an entrepreneur are similar… You’re willing to go where most people won’t dare.”
But it is still generally accepted that entrepreneurs are skillful at knowing which risks are worth taking. “In everything I do, I examine the downside, the danger, what can go wrong,” says Branson. When he started his airline, he only bought one plane, with an agreement with Boeing to take that back “if things didn’t work out.”
Are there any safeguards against failure? No! Even the best conceived and implemented business ventures can become market experiments that simply did not work. Our goal here is to follow a planning process that can minimize risk. That is the best that we can do, and the degree to which we can enhance our confidence about a venture must enter into any decision about its pursuit.
The best approach requires patience, and to a commitment to preparation well in advance of start-up. This could be a long-range process of getting to better understand one’s strengths, weaknesses, and limitations, and setting about filling knowledge and experience gaps.
Once an idea is thought to represent a real opportunity, one must be able to research the market, know what data is important and how to gather it meaningfully, and know what actions this information indicates. This can then be worked into a rather detailed plan, and then refined into a blueprint for success.
Wishing you success,
John B. Vinturella, Ph.D.
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