Do You Really Have What It Takes

A new look at the classic question of whether you are cut out to be an entrepreneur
4 min read
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Self-employment gurus Paul and Sarah Edwards have done it again. Their latest book, Why Aren't You Your Own Boss? Leaping Over the Obstacles That Stand Between You and Your Dream, written with Peter Economy, is designed to help wannabe entrepreneurs look deep within themselves and figure out if they've got what it takes to start and run their own businesses.

Unlike most other books on this topic, the book asks very specific, tough questions of its readers that will force a lot of much-needed soul-searching. Quite simply, the biggest reason most small businesses fail is that they are run by the wrong people--people who never should have left their corporate cubicles, medical benefits and weekly paychecks behind for the rough-and-tumble world of entrepreneurship.

Which brings me to this week's focus: Is there really such a thing as a "business owner" personality? Do you have to be a certain type of person to be successful in running your own business?

I am asked this question frequently in my seminars and talks, and the short answer is "No." I have seen too many different types of people succeed in business, and I have seen too many different types of people fail. Sometimes the stereotypical Type A, glad-handing, articulate, good-looking, dynamic, "success-oriented" personality type fails miserably, and sometimes the meek, mild, mumbling wallflower goes on to become a multimillionaire. You can't judge a business owner by personality alone.

And yet, when I reflect on the successful business owners I've worked with over the past couple of decades, I do see three essential qualities that they all share.

1. A healthy cynicism: Successful business owners are not deluded by dreams, fantasies or illusions about how the world "oughta be." They look closely at the world through their five senses, see what is really going on out there, and conform their behavior to the real world. They accept whatever they see at face value, without value judgments, and give people what they want. Not what the business owner thinks they want. Not what people say they want (because people often lie, even to themselves). Not what the business owner thinks people should want to buy. But what they really, really want, as demonstrated by their actual buying behavior. Show me an entrepreneur who says "People should buy my product or service because...," and I will show you someone who is living in fantasy land. Show me an entrepreneur why says "People are willing to pay for this, and I intend to make money by selling it to them," and I will show you someone with promise.

2. Insecurity: In business, a little anxiety is a good thing. It helps you spot threats before they become serious and spot opportunities before your competitors do. It keeps you awake (often at night) and focused, always asking new questions, always doubting the conventional wisdom.

When business owners get too comfortable, decide they finally know what they're doing and start running their businesses on cruise control, that's when failures start to happen. The insecure business owner is too nervous to relax, and even if there's nothing to worry about, they worry about how long that situation will last.

3. Chutzpah: As defined in Leo Rosten's classic book The Joys of Yiddish, chutzpah is "gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible guts; presumption plus arrogance such as no other word, and no other language, can do justice to."

Make no mistake. Successful business owners are tough, driven, determined, courageous, persistent and fiercely aggressive in pursuing their goals. They act first, often with information that is less than perfect, get the results they want whatever it takes, and then clean up whatever messes have happened along the way. Sometimes they leave the mess where it is, or delegate the cleanup to underlings, because reaching the next goal is more important. They believe it is better to apologize afterwards than to ask permission beforehand.

If I had to pick the single biggest reason most businesses fail, I'd say it's the lack of chutzpah when needed. As Edwards/Economy point out in their book, the single most important ingredient in any business is action: "You have to set goals, establish tasks and then complete them; it's not the size of the goals or the tasks that counts, it's the doing that is everything."

Cliff Ennico is host of the PBS television series MoneyHunt and a leading expert on managing growing companies. His advice for small businesses regularly appears on the "Protecting Your Business" channel on the Small Business Television Network at E-mail him at

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