Patent Lather

Born To Run

Birth order influences entrepreneurial style.

Apparently, whether you're an older or younger sibling determines much more than who can beat up whom. A recent study reveals that birth order influences everything from what type of companies entrepreneurs start to how they run their businesses. "I've looked at 256 predictors of behavior, including social class, national differences, age, social attitudes and patterns of friendship," says Frank Sulloway, author of Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives (Pantheon Books). "Birth order [accounts] for what 70 percent of the population will do. It's the best predictor of attitude toward change."

Sulloway, who has spent 26 years analyzing approximately 2,000 studies and profiles of more than 6,500 people, has given new life to the idea that your family niche determines your personality, a theory popularized in the 1970s and dismissed in the '80s. His conclusions: Because firstborns typically have a decent relationship with their parents and often act as surrogate parents, they tend to be more conforming, conscientious, obedient, assertive, perfectionistic, hard-driving and bossy. Later-borns, on the other hand, are more flexible, open to innovation, laid-back, sociable, and modest about their achievements.

These characteristics influence the entrepreneurial experience from the start. "Firstborns are creative but within the rules. They go for safe bets. Later-borns are more likely to undertake a drastic overhaul of their entire concept," Sulloway says. "So while firstborns would be more likely to, say, buy a franchise, later-borns might start a high-risk enterprise or try something quirky."

Each type faces its own problems when running a business. "When an idea is revolutionary, firstborns usually make the mistake of rejecting it too soon," says Sulloway. "Later-borns tend to accept theories that turn out to be incorrect."

An ideal solution, says Sulloway, would be to have firstborns and their siblings working together. "Each would counterbalance the weaknesses of the other," he explains. "You'd have an environment that is highly egalitarian and that encourages brainstorming. It's the best of both worlds." As long as they don't beat each other up.

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This article was originally published in the June 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Patent Lather.

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