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Author Ray Smilor

Why you do what you do as an entrepreneur-and why we need you

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You've been warned since the days of Play-Doh and Underoos that it's a tough world out there. Now that you're finally living there, you can only look back on your scheduled nap times, mom-made PB&J sandwiches and yellow school-bus rides with a glimmer of longing and hope that someone, somewhere, might explain why you're caught up in an endless quest to build your business.

Dr. Ray Smilor, president of the Foundation for Enterprise Development, a La Jolla, California, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping entrepreneurs develop high-performing businesses, does just that in his new book, Daring Visionaries. From recapping the tribulations experienced by other first-time business owners to providing us with his own passionate perspective on the secrets of successful entrepreneurship, Smilor provides a refreshing outlook on business ownership. Here, he sheds some light on the entrepreneurial mind-set.

Entrepreneur.com: What characteristics should entrepreneurs possess?

Ray Smilor: An entrepreneur's passion for what he or she does is the heart of the entrepreneurial process. Every entrepreneur I've encountered has had this internal drive to do something that's really important to him or her. It's the sausage manufacturer in Kansas City who loves the sausage recipe his grandmother gave him and wants to make that sausage for everyone in the world. It's the love of algorithms that K. Hammer has at Evolutionary Technologies in Austin, Texas-how she talks about the power of algorithms to organize data and information for companies. It's the love for what [you do] that helps [you] overcome obstacles, persist in the face of adversity, and handle the inevitable ups and downs that come with an entrepreneurial venture.

"An entrepreneur's passion for what he or she does is the heart of the entrepreneurial process."

Entrepreneur.com: You also talk about selling in your book. How can entrepreneurs begin to embrace this task-and why should they?

Smilor: I think selling is a powerful skill that every entrepreneur has to have but is fearful of. Really great entrepreneurs first sell themselves to investors and others, then they sell the concept of their company to employees, then they sell their product or service to customers. And really [great] entrepreneurs begin to see selling not as this hated skill, but as a skill that's essential to their success and the success of their company.

A way to make selling less painful is to see it for what it really is. You're not forcing something on a person that they don't want; you're helping somebody buy what they really need. So the first step is to change your frame of mind about the skill of selling. Second, I think it's important [to be an] exceptional listener-to take time to listen to what the other party has to say, to what their genuine need is, to what the problem is. Then shape a response that solves the problem or meets the need. Third, I think [you need to] actually practice selling-get out there and get better at listening, responding and probing-those kinds of things make this most hated skill become quite natural.

Entrepreneur.com: In your section about kid entrepreneurs, you mention that merely teaching today's youth about business ownership as a career option would satisfy you. Would you encourage kids to pursue their ideas at that moment in their lives, or would you recommend that they hold off until they finish their academic careers?

Smilor: I think it depends on the person. My suggestion is always to get involved with a growth-oriented company, because you learn about what happens as a company grows-and it makes people, perhaps, more prepared to deal with their own company, when and if they decide to launch the venture. Having exposure to the entrepreneurial process is such a great experience, because you have to create your own idea, present something to others, communicate, help build a team and do things that make you more well-rounded. That's why I think entrepreneurial education is so interesting today and why it's so widespread, because it brings [students] into an experience that helps them become a better person in the process.

Entrepreneur.com: How do you think entrepreneurs have impacted our society and the economy?

Smilor: I think entrepreneurs are the engines of our economy. They're the ones who are generating a lot of the innovations today and pushing the boundaries of technology-they are challenging the ways we act and behave and think. That kind of economic "churn," that kind of innovation, is so vital to our economy. If you look at leading economists who are studying the work on innovation, they see a direct link between the entrepreneur and the innovation process. I think that's why our economy is vibrant today: We have a culture that encourages entrepreneurship and risk-taking-that tolerates failure and lets a person try again. That kind of environment is what we need for a really healthy and dynamic economy.