Starting a business: The characteristics that make up a successful entrepreneur are manifold, but ultimately they boil down to five crucial sets of qualities.

Welcome to the new ThinkBusiness Starting a Business series. The current Covid crisis will see many businesses struggle or go to the wall, but it will also see many businesses pivot or get started. Some of the most successful businesses were established during the peaks of recession and hard times.

There are many kinds of entrepreneurs, but the journey is always different because it is an individual journey each has to take. Some people leave successful jobs and shake off the golden handcuffs of security, others use their redundancy cheques or savings because they have nothing left to lose.

“The effort, the time, the sleepless nights, the ups, and the downs. That’s what being an entrepreneur is all about”

However, despite the so-called glamour of entrepreneurship, the news articles that often follow a successful business exit, trade sale or fundraising never mention the hours of loneliness, self-doubt and the courage and resilience it takes to keep pressing on and not cashing out too early.

They don’t mention how many times a start-up nearly, or did, miss making payroll or how often founders themselves would forego a salary or work for less than they are paying their employees.

When asking the question “do you have what it takes to be an entrepreneur” we decided to ask people who have been there and who have done it.

5 elements that make successful entrepreneurs

We spoke to several entrepreneurs who have built and scaled their own businesses and it is clear that the factors that make a successful entrepreneur are:

  1. The Journey
  2. Money
  3. Courage
  4. Resilience, Determination and Endurance
  5. Necessity is the mother of invention

1. The Journey

Smiling man in navy jacket.

Rich Corbett, co-founder, The Startup.com

“After writing a business plan and securing seed investors, what lay ahead for us were seven-day weeks working on our business”

Rich Corbett is the founder of TheStartup.com and is a seasoned and successful tech founder and investor who now lives in Ireland. Corbett is the founder, general partner, and chief investment officer of Palm Street Capital LP, an IPO-centric hedge fund founded in 2002 in Boston, Massachusetts. A former director of EMC, he left a successful career in investment banking to start a business with his wife and is a board member of Seed Golf, Irish real estate start-up Lintil and Ideashares LLC.

“When lecturing at Trinity, I often ask students if they would rather embark on an entrepreneurial path or one with more stability (i.e. work for a large company). Normally what I get is an even split between the two, there’s no right answer here, and I’m sure we could look at a myriad of factors in a persons upbringing, socio-economic circumstances, parental influence (were your parent’s entrepreneurs of work for large companies?). My younger brother had a very successful career in the US military, as regimented and structured as it gets, whereas I chose the entrepreneurial route.”

Before going down the entrepreneurial route, Corbett recommends people should consider the multitude of scenarios “quitting the day job” could have on themselves, their immediate family and others. “I left the corporate world over twenty years ago and launched my first company Yoga.com, with my wife to be, Ruth Corbett.  She was in the midst of her MBA in Entrepreneurship, a yoga teacher, and we were both convinced the growth in wellness was going to be a winner in the new millennium.  After writing a business plan and securing seed investors, what lay ahead for us were seven-day weeks working on our business, deciding on products, vendors, software, weighing yoga mats at 2am and deciding on shipping options via UPS or FedEx.

“The outcome of our first venture is not what endures, the journey of it all, however, is what I’ll never forget, the effort, the time, the sleepless nights, the ups, and the downs. That’s what being an entrepreneur is all about.”

man in suit with arms folded.

Ronan Murphy, CEO of CWSI

“Starting a business is no place for quitters and unfortunately journeys don’t always end in an exit or big windfall, it can sometimes be more unpalatable than that”

Ronan Murphy is the CEO of CWSI, a company he founded with fellow tech veterans Conor Headon and Philip Harrison to address IT security weaknesses in the business world. Operating in Ireland and the UK CWSI recently launched a new managed security service from which it expects to generate an additional €2m revenue over the next 12 months.

Murphy, like Corbett, believes budding entrepreneurs need to be self-analytical before embarking on the entrepreneurial journey.

“Firstly, they need to think why they are starting this journey. Are they just bored? Are they looking to get rich quickly? Being in it for the right reasons will help you to see it through to the end. Starting a business is no place for quitters and unfortunately journeys don’t always end in an exit or big windfall, it can sometimes be more unpalatable than that. Nevertheless, staying focused right to the end of every start-up journey – whether it finishes in a good or bad way – is an essential part of becoming a successful entrepreneur. We always have to be positive, but it’s good to consider the downside too and be prepared for it.”

2. Money

“When you start a business, you’re the boss now, but you still need to pay the bills, manage the rest of your life, all while you are working countless hours trying to grow your business”

Technologies like broadband and the cloud have made it infinitely easier for people to start businesses, but it all boils down to money. Ireland punches above its weight in terms of resources for budding entrepreneurs, but at the same time there is currently a dearth of seed funding which could stymie many promising start-ups. Check out our articles on financing a start-up as well as grants and supports for start-ups.

Corbett says money talks. “I think the largest decision often comes down to money.  You forfeit some of the stability of income when you embark as an entrepreneur, but you also have the potential to make millions.

“People may disagree with the importance of money in this decision, but I think its a definite fork in the road. You may not like your job/boss, so you go and get another job and hopefully make the same amount of money or maybe a bit more. But when you start a business, you’re the boss now, but you still need to pay the bills, manage the rest of your life, all while you are working countless hours trying to grow your business.  I think there’s a certain excitement in this, rather than walk around and around a track, your off on a hike where you’re not quite sure where it, or you, will end up, hopefully at the top of the mountain and not in the abyss, but both are possible.

“Honestly, funding most start-ups has never been cheaper; I used to keep offices at the Cambridge Innovation Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, next to MIT University. I’d often see two guys come in and hot desk at a table with two laptops.  Ever curious, I’d ask about their ‘project’ and learn their ‘company’ had customers and revenue (many times large numbers of customers and revenue). With the amount of software tools available and cheap cost of development talent, often offshore, many start-ups can get a beta version of their software, or a prototype of their product, for less than $25,000.”

“Obviously Ireland has a myriad of supports available to entrepreneurs, and understanding them all is a process in itself. At TheStartup.com we’ve gone out, and selected providers we know do great work at reasonable costs, we facilitate introductions in many cases, eliminating some of the guesswork for the entrepreneurs on our platform, we’ve also negotiated discounts on many products from global vendors like Amazon AWS, Microsoft, Facebook and others.”

Man in navy jacket, grey beard, standing in front of a computer screen with location software.

Feargal O’Neill, CEO, Gamma Location Intelligence

“Entrepreneurs need hard data and research so that they understand the likelihood of success and failure”

Feargal O’Neill is the CEO of Gamma Location Intelligence, an Irish company that is currently investing €2m in its PerilFinder platform to expand into the UK. The company has been in business since 1993.

O’Neill agrees with Corbett, money cannot be ignored. “Money. You need to ask yourself the difficult, but very real, questions when it comes to finances. How can I survive when my regular income is not guaranteed? How long can I pursue this if no revenue materialises? Can I get seed funding to support my idea or, if not, what’s my financing strategy?  

“They also need to think about reducing the risk of losing the money they are investing. We provide location intelligence information to our customers to help them minimise the risk of choosing the wrong retail location for example. Entrepreneurs need hard data and research so that they understand the likelihood of success and failure.

“Of course, it goes beyond that. Do you really want to be your own boss or do you like to be given instruction? Are you willing to work weekends and nights, and do what it takes to succeed? Should you go alone or convince someone complimentary to partner with? Are they the right person/skillset/personality and not just a mate who offers to play bass? These are the sorts of questions and types of issues you need to think about and prepare for before you take the first steps to starting a business.”

3. Courage and positivity

Samantha Kelly, founder of Tweeting Goddess and Women Inspire Network

“It’s not easy making the decision to go it alone without the security of your weekly wages especially at the start. It’s a courageous decision to follow your passion”

When Samantha Kelly founded her first business Funky Goddess, she was a single mother with young daughters. Through grit and determination, and cleverly harnessing Twitter as she had a zero-marketing budget, she amassed 56,000 followers and eventually sold Funky Goddess. Today she focuses on her Tweeting Goddess consulting business and the Women Inspire Network of women entrepreneurs.

For Kelly, the most important characteristic is courage. “It’s not easy making the decision to go it alone without the security of your weekly wages especially at the start. It’s a courageous decision to follow your passion.

“It takes determination. Most female entrepreneurs I know are passionate about what they do but also you must very determined to stand out and succeed. You can’t let anything stop you or get you down. Believe me there are plenty of people and forums etc that will try to stop you.

“You need endless positivity – you WILL get there – surround yourself with positive people stay away from the people who say ‘You’re mad why are you starting a business?’

“Support from family – Your family are the ones who will be watching your ups and downs (and trust me there will be some).

“Is everyone cut out to be an entrepreneur? No. I don’t think so. Some people can give up too easily However, if you have an idea and passion you can start your own business. You do however need help to help you learn about websites, business, your brand etc. So, learn as much as you can now and build relationships with people who are experts in what they do and who ‘get’ you and what you do.”

Man wearing shorts and a business suit.

CEO of Pure Telecom Paul Connell

“The key quality, I would say is not having a fear of failure. You are going to fail at some stage, and the ability to jump up, and go again is vital”

Paul Connell is the CEO of Pure Telecom, a business he co-founded in 2002, at the height of a telecoms downturn that came in the wake of the 9-11 attacks on New York. He has steadily built the business to be a national broadband provider for Ireland and in recent months struck a €12m deal with Enet and a €10m deal with BT to deliver high-speed broadband services.

“Starting your own business or enterprise is definitely not for everyone,” says Connell. “There is no doubt that it can be a massively rewarding experience, both from a financial position, and personal satisfaction position. However, it does come with various levels of stress. The key quality, I would say is not having a fear of failure. You are going to fail at some stage, and the ability to jump up, and go again is vital. I am an accountant, and that gives you a certain amount of assistance, but to have insight, and the ability to take risks is invaluable. Once you have the basic plan, be confident in your own ability, and work hard. Maybe you make your own luck!”

And like the Nike slogan, he believes in avoiding deliberation. “Don’t think, just do it! If you thought about starting your own business too much, you would never do it. However, it is good to have a business plan, at least in mind. The plan should outline how you are going to make a profit and when you will see this profit. A good idea, may sometimes not be a good business. Maybe sound out your idea with other people, and listen to advice. What resources will you require, and how will you fund those requirements? Will you need start-up capital, and how much will you need?”

4. Resilience, Determination and Endurance

“Resilience is very important. If you can’t handle failure and disappointment, you should avoid being an entrepreneur because you will probably face many setbacks before you taste the joy of success”

Closely related to what Kelly said about determination, the qualities a lot of entrepreneurs we questioned talk about are resilience and endurance.

“It’s definitely not for everyone,” says CWSI’s Ronan Murphy. “A lot of people go into business for the wrong reasons; I often hear comments like ‘I want to be my own boss’ and ‘I want to work when I want and how I want.’ If these are the drivers behind setting up your own business, forget about it! Starting your own business means you are signing up to a 24/7 vocation for an indefinite period that brings with it relentless pressure. Few people can take the knocks and setbacks encountered on a weekly basis in a start-up business, but those who can handle the disappointment and hardship are usually rewarded in the end with immeasurable satisfaction.”

Gamma’s Feargal O’Neill agrees: “Resilience is very important. If you can’t handle failure and disappointment, you should avoid being an entrepreneur because you will probably face many setbacks before you taste the joy of success. It is worth the wait but if you aren’t resilient, you won’t be able to handle the pace. Often, being a good entrepreneur is about staying in the game long enough to get that break or find that critical ingredient.”

5. Necessity is the mother of invention

Ray Ryan, CEO, Noledge Group

“History has shown us time and again that great innovations emerge during and following tough events and difficult times”

Many existing entrepreneurs and soon-to-be-entrepreneurs have found themselves as founders out of sheer necessity. They may have been made redundant, for example, or if they can’t find a job they will make one. But not only that, people come up with the best ideas because they spot a clear market need. Indeed, Ireland is chock-full of SMEs that had to pivot to survive in 2020.

“Necessity is the mother of all invention,” says Murphy. “History has shown us time and again that great innovations emerge during and following tough events and difficult times. I truly believe we will see this again over the coming months and years as our ‘new normal’ becomes populated with new ideas.”

With more than 25 years running successful software firms Ray Ryan is CEO of Dublin cloud player Noledge Group. He believes the current pandemic will lead to a surge in new businesses being formed. “Given the upheaval wrought by the pandemic, there will be plenty of gaps to be filled in traditional business models and the entrepreneurial opportunity is to fill these in a smarter way by leveraging technology. While it’s inevitable that some businesses will close in these times, brand new businesses with brand new ideas will ultimately rise.”

O’Neill agrees: “One sure way of persuading people to take the risk of being an entrepreneur is to take away their regular, secure employment. Sadly, after Covid, many will lose their jobs. But out of crisis comes the green shoots of entrepreneurship. Government support to encourage this will be crucial and will determine the speed and extent of innovation.”

By John Kennedy (john.kennedy3@boi.com)

Published: 2 December, 2020

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