How to Succeed as an Entrepreneur (If You Aren't Mark Zuckerberg)
My father wasn't the head of a multinational tech startup. He wasn't a headline-grabbing venture capitalist unicorn, and his business wasn't particularly notable or even all that unusual in small-town America -- and yet, he was still one of the most successful entrepreneurs I've ever met.
He ran a pizza shop in Lewisburg, Pa. If you've never been there -- and you probably haven't -- it's a small town tucked into the bank of the Susquehanna River, surrounded by rolling farmland and dotted with historic buildings. At last count, the population stood at just over 5,600.
You can probably guess that my dad didn't become Mark Zuckerberg. He didn't churn out slices for a customer base of millions or (somehow) reinvent pizza for the modern era -- and he didn't need to. He built a business that provided something that he knew the people of Lewisburg wanted and made sure that the pies he produced were the best in the area. I live in New York City now, and I'm not quite so biased as to say that his pizza was better than Joe's, but he still made a mean slice. (Okay, I'm biased. It's better than Joe's.)
His small-town success and that pizza shop taught me one of the most important lessons I'd pick up as an entrepreneur: The vast majority of successful entrepreneurs will never be Zuckerberg, and that's okay. They don't need to build an empire and amass public attention, wealth and business prestige off of a never-before-seen business idea. They focus in on meeting a consumer need, and they meet it very, very well.
In fact, trying to be too much of a unicorn might just backfire on you. According to a recent CB Insights study, a lack of market need, not a lack of creativity, is the primary reason for startup failure. Stubbornly aiming for uniqueness at the expense of practicality inevitably leads to failure. As one analyst for Miller-Klein put the problem: "We become so personally committed to the idea that we forget to ask all those niggling questions like -- what does this enable the customer to do that they couldn't do before, how much do they care, and crucially, how much will they pay?"
Practicality needs to come first. At the foundation, successful entrepreneurs like my father are hard-working people who take a good business idea -- well-worn or not -- that suits a demonstrated consumer need and manage to execute it better and with greater efficiency than their competition.
This focused and sensible philosophy underpinned the approach I took when I began Ashcroft Capital: a private equity firm focused on acquiring apartment communities nationwide. When the business first took off in 2015, we were small. Today, we hold close to a half of a billion dollars in our portfolio. The key to success? Time, patience, strategy and -- above all else -- not letting ambition overtake hard work and practicality.
You don't need to be a startup unicorn to find success; you need to be the best and most strategic version of your entrepreneurial self.
Here are a few tips.
Take your time.
Rushing into a venture too early won't guarantee failure, but it will make it more likely. This advice might run counter to expectations; after all, entrepreneurship is often associated with youth and founders with recent college degrees.
Yet, rushing into business without taking the time to work in a chosen industry first may just up the odds of failure later on. According to one recent study on the correlation between founder age and business achievement, the most successful ventures had founders that were, on average, about 45 years old. These older high achievers had the chance to build needed skill sets and establish strong industry connections before they ever left their secure jobs for the uncertainty of entrepreneurship.
There isn't an age ceiling on starting a business -- so take your time!
No one is too good for grunt work.
I firmly believe that entrepreneurs need to learn the rules of a trade before they try to disrupt it. Think of it this way: Would you start perfecting tricks on a bicycle before you learned to ride it? Probably not. Like a bicyclist who tries too much, too soon, vaulting into business without learning the skills you need to succeed will likely land you in a crash that is at best demoralizing, and, at worst, painful.
Don't be too proud to learn. As an entrepreneur, you will probably end up working every role in your company until you have the resources to bring on a specialist to fill each position. I think CarFootprints.com CEO Ney Torres might have put it best when he told Business News Daily: "You don't need only one tool or skill to build a house or building. You don't need to be the best at all of them, but you need to understand them."
If you commit to learning as much as you can about the industry you want to break into, you have a better chance of setting a solid foundation from the start. Moreover, having a generalist understanding doesn't only help you in the startup process; it will also allow you to better collaborate with the specialists within your team, give you a more nuanced view of the business as a whole and make you a more effective leader overall.
Don't let impatience overrun success.
Cultivating sustainable company growth and development is undeniably tricky. If you grow too fast and run out of funding, you fail. If you stay too small and become overwhelmed, you fail. Even after years of preparation and learning, stepping up as CEO is more or less on par with being thrown into the deep end of a pool with a leaky flotation device and one arm tied behind your back. You want to swim forward toward success -- but sometimes, it's all you can do to keep the company afloat.
The key to sustainable growth? Humility and openness.
Ambition is all well and good, but it will bring down your venture if it stops you from listening to your team and blinds you to the truth of your circumstances. As business and management researcher John Hamm writes for the Harvard Business Review, "Entrepreneurs who grow into leaders almost always scale because they are open to learning. ... They scale because they take deliberate steps to confront their shortcomings and become the leaders their organizations need them to be."
So, maybe you won't be Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos; maybe you won't be the next one-in-a-million unicorn on the news. But, isn't that a little reassuring? If you work hard and open yourself to learning, you might create something smaller, more robust, and just as successful in its way.
Whatever else you do, make something -- whether it's a multinational tech company, an investment firm or a small-town pizza shop -- that you can look back on with pride.