4 Lessons About Entrepreneurs, From the Seat of a Bicycle

On a 4,000-mile bike trek, one professor learned some surprising traits about small business owners.

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By Lisa Evans

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Michael Glauser, executive director of the Clark Center for Entrepreneurship at Utah State University and co-founder of the training company My New Enterprise, accompanied by colleagues, students and a film crew, departed Florence, Ore., on a 4,000-mile cycling journey this summer. The team travelled across the country by bike, visiting more than 100 entrepreneurs in 100 cities to chronicle the stories of American small business owners operating in unsung places and learn about what makes them successful.

Glauser's Kerouac-like journey was inspired by his observations that graduating students face fewer job opportunities. He references a 2013 study by Oxford University which examined 702 occupations and determined 47 percent were at high risk for being replaced by modern technology. Despite the decline in traditional jobs, Glauser sees great opportunity in entrepreneurship and encourages his own students to think about starting their own small businesses. But by promoting entrepreneurship, Glauser isn't suggesting students strive to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, but to build the type of mainstream businesses that caused America to thrive a hundred years ago – becoming restaurateurs and merchants and opening small business that serve a community need. "There's been a tremendous amount of research showing self-employment is going to become more and more important for people in America," says Glauser.

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Many of the towns Glauser and his team cycled through are areas where there job availability is low, providing opportunities for those with entrepreneurial spirits to create their own companies and spur job growth in the communities they love. By interviewing entrepreneurs who have been in business for five years or more, Glauser and his team sought to understand what American business owners are doing right. Here's what they learned:

1. The Silicon Valley model is over-rated.

Glauser says although the Silicon Valley model is often heralded in business schools as the key to success, the "get in, get rich, get out" scenario isn't the reality for many of America's entrepreneurs. In fact, in all the interviews Glauser and his team conducted, not once did they hear the words "exit strategy." Instead, business owners were intent on finding and serving a community need and living the dream of being one's own boss. One entrepreneur, when asked what his exit strategy was, replied, "I guess my exit strategy is dying."

2. Entrepreneurs are fueled by passion rather than profit.

Glauser was surprised to find that the entrepreneurs he interviewed did not indicate profit as their primary motivator. Most were fueled instead by passion for doing what they love. "Making a lot of money then getting out was not there at all in any of these stories," says Glauser, who argues being purpose-driven makes for a stronger, more sustainable business. "Having a purpose is what pulls you through the hard times. It's what motivates your business," he says. Many of the entrepreneurs Glauser and his team encountered had as their driving purpose creating jobs in the communities they love, many of which had been hit by job losses and rely on small businesses to keep the town afloat.

Related: 17 Traits That Entrepreneurs Possess

3. Entrepreneurs thrive on community support.

The biggest advantage small businesses operating in a small town have is community. Glauser witnessed communities rallying around small businesses to help them succeed by becoming loyal customers of their products and promoting local businesses who provide much-needed jobs to community members. "Many of these entrepreneurs are using the business as a tool to make a contribution in the community," says Glauser. The community then returns the support, making for a stronger, more sustainable business.

4. Entrepreneurs are creating more with less.

"Entrepreneurs have become masters at using resources other than money," says Glauser. He recalls the story of Amy Gardiner, owner of the accessories company Scarpa. When Gardiner was struggling to come up with the cash to purchase her next season's inventory, she revved up her creative engine and asked her customers to open a credit line with the store in exchange for a discount on all of their purchases. This strategy resulted in raising $70,000 for her inventory. Stories such as Gardiner's were common among many of the entrepreneurs Glauser and his team interviewed and highlighted the many ways entrepreneurs are creating more with less resources than ever.

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Lisa Evans

Lisa Evans is a health and lifestyle freelance journalist from Toronto.

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