Are Entrepreneurs Born or Built? Or Both?
By Howard Tullman
I was part of a recent Oxford-style debate in Chicago where the proposition under consideration was that “Entrepreneurs are born, not trained.” It was the classic nature versus nurture type of heated argument between two pairs of seasoned senior executives and serial entrepreneurs. And truth be told, I think that each of the advocates in the debate except maybe my debate partner, Amy Wilkinson, could have easily argued in favor of or against either side of the proposition. Amy herself was pretty hardcore on our side of the argument (we were the “built” team) and she had some pretty strong ammunition as well based on her most recent research in the field.
In fact, the entire contest was especially informed and influenced by Amy’s participation since she, after five years of serious investigation interviewing dozens of hugely-successful company founders, had just published a new book on entrepreneurs called The Creator’s Code. I’d say it’s a must read for anyone who wants to understand what it takes to survive and succeed in the startup world. I don’t want to try to summarize it because I couldn’t do it justice and because the many concrete examples in the book which are drawn from one-on-one conversations with all of these people are invaluable additions to the book’s own concrete conclusions. But as noted below, while you definitely need the big names and boffo stories to move the books off the shelves, the real value of her years of diligent research and analysis is how the findings can help all of us everyday entrepreneurs be better at accomplishing what we’re trying to do.
Amy’s book identifies and describes a cluster of distinct abilities that will sound very familiar to any serious entrepreneur; but it also makes the more interesting assertion that real breakthrough success depends on the presence, not of some of these talents and capabilities, but of all of them at the same time and in the same person. Her research shows that every one of the six essential skills that she had identified was present in each and every one of the male and female entrepreneurs in her study.
The underlying study basically focused on the founders of companies, which had reached $100 million or more in revenues over a five year period. Rapidly growing and highly impactful companies, every one of the founders she spent time with is a household name today to millions of people, but not a single one of them would call themselves an overnight success. Nor would they say, even though the premise of the book is their skill sets, that they achieved their successes alone. And in fact, one of the six essential skills is the ability to network and draw talent and resources to your ideas. These narratives are all about striving, persistence, passion and even patience which is something we rarely talk about in this context, but it’s invaluable to understand that you should never confuse a clear view of where you’re headed with the time or distance that it will take to get there or how difficult the journey will be.
Amy’s research also demonstrated that the more times a given individual exercised these abilities and the more businesses he or she created over time, the better they got each time at the process and the higher the likelihood that they would again be massively successful. Practice and application make increasingly perfect. Perhaps the prime poster boy and serial entrepreneur in the book is Elon Musk, for obvious reasons. Although, as Amy noted, nothing was sure or obvious (except his raw intelligence) when he started, and in fact Elon faced the abyss multiple times in several of his most successful ventures, but he never stopped believing. By his own admission, Elon taught himself a great deal about a number of different industries and throughout his journey he learned immense amounts from each and every bump in the road. The bottom line of Amy’s research and the most compelling conclusion was that all of these critical tools and techniques can be learned, honed, and improved upon throughout anyone’s career and over successive instances of starting new businesses.
Note that I use the term “learned” rather than “taught” because so many of the individuals in Amy’s study were not classically advantaged or trained in the areas of their ultimate triumphs. In fact, they were almost all more scrappy and “street smart” than brilliant or “book smart” in the areas that really mattered to their eventual businesses. This distinction of course became a major bone of contention in the debate itself. Our view was that becoming an effective entrepreneur and a business success was about experience, iteration, and learned craft as well as a full measure of good fortune, rather than some genetically determined destiny that inescapably assured you of eventual success. At the outset of the debate, the audience was informally polled and they agreed substantially (60 to 40) with our side of the argument. The trick was not to lose them over the course of the discussion.
Our opponents immediately attempted to pigeonhole us in the academic world and repeatedly stressed that their view of the “training” under discussion was the type that could only take place in the narrowest confines of colleges, universities and graduate programs. We countered that they were attempting to make a distinction which made no real difference in the real world. Where, and how you gained and developed the skills didn’t matter a bit, the point was that none of these talents appears fully-realized and ready to roll at birth or at the outset of anyone’s careers.
As you might expect, there was a lot of loose talk about crazy people, college dropouts, about people happy to take insane risks, about fatal optimists, and about the absolute cream of the crop, those few super entrepreneurs whose names we all know and revere. But when the dust settled, the thing that struck me at the end of the contest was that we were actually doing so many aspiring entrepreneurs a real disservice by focusing on the very few Michael Jordans and the Lang Langs of business (who may be amazing or may just be the luckiest people alive at the right time and right place), rather than on the thousands of equally successful, if considerably smaller, entrepreneurs who are working just as hard every day to build their businesses, and who can really learn and demonstrably benefit the most from the important lessons which Amy’s book has to share.
Uber is a great story, but the real growth and expansion of new businesses and the creation of new jobs will come from the hundreds of businesses that apply the new lessons of the sharing economy and “Uberize” their own businesses and industries. Similarly, there will be Airbnb-ish solutions brought forward in many market sectors. All of these successes will be driven by individuals who master and intelligently apply all of the essential skills which Amy sets out in her book to their own enterprises and not by the ones who think that the key to success is to emulate Travis or Zuck by rocking a hoodie and then sitting by the roadside waiting for the lightning to strike. Hope is not a strategy for success. Hard work, perseverance and iteration are.
Finally, in the interests of full disclosure, I have to confess that by the discussion’s end, due in no small part to the under-handed and reprehensible behavior of our opponents (and some pithy comments about the height of NBA players and other flagrant grandstanding), the audience was somewhat swayed in favor of our opponent’s position and the gap in opinion was narrowed – although we ultimately prevailed in a purely mathematical sense. Small solace.
Howard A. Tullman is the CEO of 1871 — Where Digital Startups Get Their Start, and is also the General Managing Partner of G2T3V, LLC and of Chicago High Tech Investment Partners. He is a member of the Chicago NEXT & Cultural Affairs Councils and the Illinois Innovation & Arts Councils; an adjunct professor at Kellogg; and an advisor to many start-ups. He is the former Chairman and CEO of Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy. Over the last 45 years he has successfully founded more than a dozen high-tech companies.