Oh, you get the occasional reference to “entrepreneurs and small business.” And in fact when you say the word “entrepreneur,” most people think “business.” But that’s not what I am talking about. There is a difference between being an entrepreneur, and thinking like one. And in my opinion, widespread entrepreneurial thinking is exactly what the country needs. Not only do I think that it would pull us out of the current economic malaise, I believe it is the ONLY thing that will.
Why? What does it mean to think “entrepreneurially”?
When you study entrepreneurs of all stripes, you discover that they have a number of things in common. Further study reveals that these same attributes, characteristics and experiences not only contribute to successful business – they make people more successful at everything they undertake. Here’s my list of the attributes that make for successful entrepreneurs:
1. Specific expertise – in something. Studies have shown that upwards of 80% of ideas for new businesses come from an entrepreneur’s earlier employment. This makes sense; the aspiring entrepreneur will know the market, the consumers, and the needs that are not being met. This is one of the best ways to identify new opportunities. But it is not the only way. And this brings me to #2.
2. The ability to see a problem as an opportunity. This, more than anything else, is the aspect of “entrepreneurial thinking” that is most transformative – and most desperately needed today. Engineers see problems and begin devising technical solutions. Entrepreneurs see problems and start thinking of products or services to meet those needs. Every successful company you can think of solved a problem or met a need – from faster transportation to cleaner clothes to eradicated diseases, to larger operating systems. Americans take it for granted that businesses think this way, but it rarely occurs to them that individuals and other organizations can – and must - think this way.
3. An internal locus of control. This is sometimes referred to in the literature as “self-efficacy.” Entrepreneurs have a strong belief in their own ability to get things done. Rather than look at a problem and say, “Somebody needs to do something,” an entrepreneur will tend to say, “What can I do to fix this?” (When I speak to people – especially underrepresented groups – about entrepreneurship, my standard line is that, “Entrepreneurship is about empowerment, not entitlement.” They get it.) The good news is, self-efficacy can be learned. In other words, entrepreneurs are made, not born.
4. Willingness to risk creating a solution. One of the most common misperceptions about entrepreneurs is that they are “risk-takers.” Not exactly. What entrepreneurs do is take calculated risks. The willingness to create a solution (a product, a service, a company) is born of a confidence that in many cases comes from long experience (see #1, above). That makes it seem far less risky to the entrepreneur than it might otherwise be to a complete outsider.
5. A tolerance for failure. This is tied with #2 as the most significant attribute of entrepreneurial thinking. No one likes to fail. But not only do successful entrepreneurs fail, most will tell you that they learned more from their failures than their successes. Working as I do with engineers, I see how critical the scientific method is to successful entrepreneurship: hypothesize, test, (fail), adapt … repeat. Failure is more than a necessary evil - - it is vital to the development of an individual, the growth of a company, and the health of a robust economy. It is the consummate irony: a society that cannot tolerate failure, will have nothing but failure.
You are probably wondering at this point what this has to do with Republicans’ ability to craft a message that will resonate with American voters. Bear with me. There is a powerful message in all of this that Republicans and other conservatives can use when speaking to the American public. And in my next column, I’ll explain what that is…
Laura Hollis is an Associate Professional Specialist and Concurrent Associate Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame, where she teaches entrepreneurship and business law. She is the author of the forthcoming publication, “Start Up, Screw Up, Scale Up: What Government Can Learn From the Best Entrepreneurs,” © 2014. Her opinions are her own, and do not reflect the position of the university. Follow her on Twitter: @LauraHollis61.