Are entrepreneurs born or made?



Nature versus nurture arguments have always fascinated me. Twins separated at birth are great testbeds for this argument. As best I recall most of these studies come down on the side of nature – twins separated at birth or at a very young age comb their hair the same way, dress the same way, marry and have children in similar ways and so forth. The similarities can be downright eerie.

The nature vs. nurture argument is one of the canonical cases in entrepreneurship. Obviously there are many who come down on the side of nurture, as there are thousands of books, blogs, courses, and even majors in entrepreneurship.

My own case comes down heavily on the side of nature. My father’s father was a serial entrepreneur whose ventures included a metal working company. My sister and I have several of his works in wrought iron – they’ve held up quite well for about a century. His wife was also an entrepreneur, running a small gift shop on the east side of Manhattan for many years. Unfortunately my father was hellbent on assimilation and thus never learned any family history and until I became a parent myself I had no interest in family history. So I have no idea if my great great parents on my father’s side of the family were entrepreneurs, or in the language of the time, businessmen. With the emphasis on “men.”

On my mother’s side of the family her father was a successful serial entrepreneur, starting a business with his brothers, only to split off from them to run his own business, which despite my mother’s explaining it to me I still don’t understand. It to do with some selling a new type of synthetic material. His wife was the exception to the entrepreneurial gene, she was a housewife and top gun bridge player with her husband.

Dropping down a generation to my father. He lead a very typical suburban life – married with two children, holding the same job for 25 years or more. But late in his career he attempted to start a business with a friend, in wind energy of all things. He was only 50 years to soon and the venture never got off the ground. I wished I had learned more about this business, what lead him to start it, how he chose his partner, what problem was he solving, why he thought the venture could be successful. Now I have to rely on my 97 year old mother for whatever her memories are of his start up business. My mother was as a lawyer and virtually all of her career was spent in her practice with just a short stint early in her career working for Legal Aid and later as attorney for the state department of mental health. She was content to be a sole practitioner.

My sister has been in business for herself as a very successful UI/UX designer for decades. Despite having the word “Associates” in the title of her business she’s never so much as had a partner. So are my mother and sister entrepreneurs running a business of one? I would say so, as I don’t think growth defines a business. But both were in service, not product, businesses.

I had no interest in business until after graduating from college. I only read the sports page and never read a business book or magazine. I didn’t even know any businessmen – everyone in my neighborhood was a professional of some sort, doctors, lawyers, professors. But as I’ve written elsewhere it was my dissatisfaction with the sound at the music concerts I attended that lead me to believe I could do better. And I did start a sound reinforcement business, not realizing what a capital intensive business it was. But despite that failure the founder gene did its work as I approached a colleague at Addison Wesley Publishing Company about starting an electronic publishing business. But like my father with his wind energy startup, attempting to start an online publishing business was twenty years or more ahead of it’s time.

As a mentor I have talked with many founders over the years, but I rarely dig into their pasts and they just as rarely talk about their parents or what lead them to become an entrepreneur.  My working hypothesis is that becoming a founder is much like becoming a musician, there is something innate but it only takes hold and blooms with the right environment and nurturing. Entrepreneurial education and mentorship can grow and fertilize a seed, but often I see founders who lack that seed. They may even go so far as to start a company but when the going gets tough they find a graceful exit, into academia or working in a large and established company. The stresses and strains, the responsibility for the financial welfare of others are constantly demanding – making payroll is a daunting task which may take years until it can be taken for granted.

If you feel the need for autonomy, believer that there’s a problem out there that needs solving, and most importantly that you are the person to solve it, then I suggest you go for it. In medicine often the only treatment is empirical – try something to see if it works. The same holds true for entrepreneurship. But if you can obtain an internship at a startup or even volunteer to work at one getting a flavor of the day-to–day environment will help you to ascertain if that’s a world you want to enter. Back when I started my entrepreneurial route the standard path was to get an engineering degree, go to work at a large established growth company, like Digital Equipment Corporation, put in a few years, then spin out to start your own company or join a startup before starting your own company. These days it seems like many founders are skipping step two, working for someone else. They go from college to their own startup, many even dropping out to do so.

I believe that motivation is critical. If you simply want to make a lot of money get an MBA from a top tier university and go to work on Wall Street. That’s a lot easier and surer path if money is what motivates you. But if you have let the founder gene to start controlling you then be like an artist, follow your muse. This path be much easier before you have a marriage, children, a mortgage and the other attendant responsibilities that can bury a nascent startup idea. I believe that’s why we see a lot of founders at a young age and another cohort when their children have left the nest, and as a friend categorizes it, “they are off the payroll.”

Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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