Entrepreneurs are born, not made – sorry academics!


Nature versus nurture is one of the oldest arguments in science and whether entrepreneurs are born, not made is one of the oldest in entrepreneurship. Judging by the hundreds of academic courses there are a lot of believers in the “made” theory.

But if you take the time to carefully read The New York Times article A Question for Tesla’s Board: What Was Elon Musk’s Mental State? you will find several examples of the differences between wannabe entrepreneurs and the real thing:

“Entrepreneurs often have a temperament and a constellation of traits that can create enormous value but are also associated with significant risks,” said Michael A. Freeman, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco whose research and practice focuses on entrepreneurs.

Ok, so what are those traits then?

While Dr. Freeman said he couldn’t comment on Mr. Musk, whom he’s never treated, he said that his research and experience with clients show that entrepreneurs generally “have mental health profiles that are associated with higher levels of creativity, higher levels of energy, higher levels of risk tolerance and higher levels of impulsivity. Another way to look at impulsivity is a need for speed, a sense of urgency, higher motivation, and greater restlessness.”

I find his findings to be congruent with own experience with hundreds of entrepreneurs, and wannabes, over the past 40 years. As I wrote in the blog post Yep, I’m biased and I admit it, entrepreneurs have a bias for action. As I would tell my teams, “I have many virtues, but patience is not one of them.”

What drove me as an entrepreneur was the innate need to “get things done.” And I’m sure that’s why I was recruited into so many startups, as I totally lack any individual contributor skills in engineering, finance, or marketing/sales.

I didn’t learn that behavior in any class on entrepreneurship. In fact I never took one! Here’s the viewpoint of another academic:

Scott Shane, a professor of entrepreneurial studies at Case Western Reserve University, put it more simply: “These people are just wired differently,” he said. “They’re quicker to spot and act on opportunities, but that same tendency can get them into trouble in other situations.”

Three out of four of my grandparents were entrepreneurs – my mother’s father being a very successful serial entrepreneur. Even my father, who was a career electrical  entrepreneur with companies like Mitre, attempted a wind energy startup in middle age.

And more than one person has told me I have an anti-authoritarian streak a mile-wide:

It’s also a common trait of entrepreneurs that they feel rules don’t apply to them. From their perspective, many rules “get in the way of getting things done,” said Dr. Freeman.

However, Professor Freeman cautions:

“If you’re hard-wired to go full speed ahead at all times, you need to create a filter for yourself to decrease those risk factors.”

I believe that the reason VCs focus their investments not on the product, the market or the technology, but on the founder is because it is the founder’s drive, passion, and persistence that will generate outsize financial rewards for them.

While I’m far from a grand visionary – in fact in many cases my vision was way too early (electronic textbooks, mobile phone shopping) I do share one trait with those who are:

“It’s not easy for anyone to control the behavior of a grand visionary,” Mr. Shane said. “These people don’t like to be controlled.”

And while the Times article doesn’t mention it, most of the innate traits of an entrepreneur also make them terrible employees. Hire one at your peril.

That doesn’t mean that founders can’t learn anything from academics or other sources. In fact the other trait I’ve seen in founders is that they are autodidacts, from Bill Gates reading the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica as a child to Elon Musk teaching himself rocket science. But like musicians or artists, entrepreneurs can improve or hone their skills through learning, but I believe no amount of learning can generate an entrepreneur. In fact one of the interesting, but little noted, characteristics of the rock revolution of the 1960’s was that it was not driven by students who went to music school but by art school graduates!

So while I wouldn’t go quite so far as Peter Thiel, who paid students $100,000 to drop out and start companies, I would recommend would be founders to think twice about getting  an MBA rather than just getting out there and building something. The one benefit of a university education is not what you learn in the classroom so much as what you learn from your peers and the connections you make. So I strongly recommend that founders take advantage of an undergraduate education and work their startup ideas on the side, rather than dropping out. And there is a tremendous amount to be learned from successful entrepreneurs like Steve Blank who has gone on to be an adjunct professor at Stanford. But a lot of what he teaches is available for free in his books and on this blog.

But just like bohemians, who may mimic the life style of real artists, but lack their creativity, being impulsive and anti-authoritarian doesn’t mean you are an entrepreneur. The key element lacking in both bohemians and many would be entrepreneurs is one important trait: creativity.

So before you decide to start down the entrepreneurial path you may want to do a self-analysis and see if you have the key traits of founders or not.





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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