The 7 Traits of Successful Enterpeneurs

The 7 Traits of Successful Entrepreneurs

BY |January 10,  2014|
Enter “entrepreneurial traits” into Google, and the menu of frequent searches  will complete the query with “… of Steve Jobs” and “… of Bill Gates,” among  others. These are the forces of nature that spring to mind for most of us when  we think of entrepreneurs–iconic figures who seemed to burst from the womb with  enterprise in their DNA.

They inspire, but they also intimidate. What if you weren’t born with Jobs’  creative genius or Gates’ iron will? There’s good news for the rest of us:  Entrepreneurs can be guided to success by harnessing crucial attributes.  Scholars, business experts and venture capitalists say entrepreneurs can emerge  at any stage of life and from any realm, and they come in all personality types  and with any grade point average.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, you don’t have to be Type A–that is, an  overachieving, hyperorganized workaholic–or an extrovert to launch a successful  business. “Type A’s don’t take the risks to be entrepreneurs,” says Elana Fine,  managing director of the University of Maryland’s Dingman Center for  Entrepreneurship, adding that the same goes for straight-A students. “Very often  it’s C students who become entrepreneurs.”

However, the best entrepreneurs do share a collection of characteristics,  from tenacity to the ability to tolerate risk, that are crucial to a successful  venture. An analysis of 23 research studies published under the title “The Big  Five Personality Dimensions and Entrepreneurial Status” found that entrepreneurs  have different personality traits than corporate managers, scoring far higher on  traits such as openness to experience (curiosity, innovation) and  conscientiousness (self-discipline, motivation) and considerably lower on  neuroticism, which allows them to better tolerate stress.


Starting a business is an ultramarathon. You have to be able to live with  uncertainty and push through a crucible of obstacles for years on end.  Entrepreneurs who can avoid saying uncle have a better chance of finding their  market and outlasting their inevitable mistakes. This trait is known by many  names–perseverance, persistence, determination, commitment, resilience–but  it’s really just old-fashioned stick-to-it-iveness.

“Tenacity is No. 1,” says Mike Colwell, who runs Plains Angels, an Iowa angel  investor forum, and the accelerator Business Innovation Zone for the Greater Des  Moines Partnership. “So much of entrepreneurship is dealing with repeated  failure. It happens many times each week.”

When failure happens, you have to start all over again. Jett McCandless was a  partner in a fast-growing freight logistics operation. But the rapid expansion  triggered mistakes, including an invoicing glitch that left the company without  enough cash reserves. The business had to be sold for a fraction of its value.  McCandless didn’t agree to the terms and was fired. He lost the company house  and car and wound up moving into his girlfriend’s apartment. “It was a very  tough time,” he recalls. “I came very close to going bankrupt.”

He went on 25 job interviews and got offers for logistics positions paying  $200,000 and up. But McCandless, who grew up in Section 8 public housing,  wondered, Should I take a comfortable, secure job, or could I build  something better? “I was afraid that failure could define the rest of my  life, and I wasn’t going to let that happen,” he says.

So rather than accept one of those big offers, he started over, founding a  new company, CarrierDirect, in Chicago. Hamstrung by the noncompete contract  with his previous firm, he created a wholly new space in the logistics field.  Instead of matching shippers with truckers, he switched to consulting, providing  marketing and sales for logistics companies. In two years CarrierDirect grew to  $35 million in revenue. “I’m glad I didn’t take one of those corporate jobs,” he  says now.


It’s commonly assumed that successful entrepreneurs are driven by money. But  most will tell you they are fueled by a passion for their product or service, by  the opportunity to solve a problem and make life easier, better, cheaper.

“Most entrepreneurs I know believe they will change the world,” says Jay  Friedlander, a professor of sustainable business who works with entrepreneurs at  the College of the Atlantic and at Babson College. “There’s an excitement and  belief in what they’re doing that gets them through the hard times.”

Passion based on your company’s specific mission is an intrinsic drive that  provides the internal reward that can sustain you between paydays. John Roulac  is passionate about hemp, which has a host of industrial and food uses and can  be grown without herbicide, making it a keystone crop for sustainable  agriculture. With a mission of providing a new market for Canadian hemp farmers,  Roulac launched his company, Nutiva, in 1999 with a hemp food bar. But he  quickly ran into interference from U.S. Customs officials who associated hemp,  part of the cannabis family, with marijuana.

“Initially, they tried to harass us,” Roulac recalls. “They would say our  products couldn’t leave the warehouse; then they could. It was very hard to stay  in business.” Two years later the Justice Department published a rule that put  hemp products in the same illegal category as heroin. “It was either go out of  business, keep going or go to jail,” he says. “It could be bankruptcy or  humiliation.”

Roulac had more than $100,000 invested in the business by this point. A lot  of people told him to quit. Instead, he decided to go on the offensive and sued  the Drug Enforcement Administration. With support from the natural-products  industry, particularly soap company Dr. Bronner’s, he won the suit two years  later. Roulac’s belief in the power of his mission had prevailed.

“I believed that I was on the side of truth and that there was a government  agency trying to prevent something good happening for the country,” he explains.  “I feel at a core level that this is my destiny to help create a better food  system.”

Today Nutiva sells a variety of organic products, from hemp protein shakes to  virgin coconut oil. Roulac’s advice when things get tough: “Dig deeper.”

Tolerance of ambiguity

This classic trait is the definition of risk-taking–the ability to withstand  the fear of uncertainty and potential failure. “It all boils down to being able  to successfully manage fear,” notes Michael Sherrod, entrepreneur-in-residence  at the Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University.

He sees the ability to control fear as the most important trait of all. “Fear  of humiliation, fear of missing payroll, running out of cash, bankruptcy, the  list goes on.”

Jill Blashack Strahan knows the fear factor. The founder and CEO of  Tastefully Simple, a direct-sales company for gifts and easy-to-make meals,  remembers the calls to her bank when she was three months overdue on her  mortgage. “That fear that I would lose my house almost controlled me,” says  Blashack Strahan, who also had to overcome the deaths of her brother and then  her husband shortly afterward. “The night after the funeral of my husband, I  thought maybe I should give up, get a job and be a mom.”

This is where the ultimate entrepreneurial test takes place, on the mental  battlefield. You can go with the fear and quit, or push through it. “I said no;  this idea is going to work,” Blashack Strahan says. “We have the power to  control our thoughts. When we commit mentally, our action follows.” She made a  conscious decision to push through the fear. Her company had sales in 2012 of  $98 million.

While many would feel powerless in the face of such adversity, “the  entrepreneur looks at the situation and knows he has some control over the  outcome,” says Jonathan Alpert, a psychotherapist and author of Be Fearless:  Change Your Life in 28 Days.


One of the defining traits of entrepreneurship is the ability to spot an  opportunity and imagine something where others haven’t. Entrepreneurs have a  curiosity that identifies overlooked niches and puts them at the forefront of  innovation and emerging fields. They imagine another world and have the ability  to communicate that vision effectively to investors, customers and staff.

Many people would be satisfied with a couple of successful businesses, but  Eldad Matityahu saw beyond his two thriving frozen-yogurt stores. He’d been  reading about the fiber-optic space and decided he wanted in on the technology  sector that surrounded him in Silicon Valley. So he sold his yogurt shops and  his Harley and got into a field he knew nothing about. He took a job with a  fiber-optic company to learn the business and discovered his niche there.

Customers told him they were frustrated that they couldn’t have access to see  who was on their networks–important for security. “I realized there was no  solution on the market addressing this pain point,” Matityahu says. “I took the  time to figure out why.”

The products Matityahu created made activity on the network easily visible  and also protected the system. He bootstrapped his company, Net Optics, with  $100,000–the proceeds from his two yogurt stores and Harley (along with a small  investment from family members)–turning down venture capitalists along the way.  In October 2013 he sold the company for $190 million.

“Entrepreneurs often face naysayers, because we see the future before the  future plays out,” Matityahu says. “You have to be several steps ahead of the  market.”


Self-confidence is a key entrepreneurial trait. You have to be crazy-sure  your product is something the world needs and that you can deliver it to  overcome the naysayers, who will always deride what the majority has yet to  validate.

Researchers define this trait as task-specific confidence. It’s a belief that  turns the risk proposition around–you’ve conducted enough research and have  enough confidence that you can get the job done that you ameliorate the  risk.

“You have to have a lot of self-confidence. Be willing to take a risk, but be  conservative,” says Jason Apfel, founder of, an e-commerce site  for beauty products. Apfel didn’t know anything about the beauty world when he  started the company, but he believed he could create a solid website to sell  such products. “I thought selling a commodity online at the most competitive  price would work,” he says. His company has outlasted well-funded competitors  and sees $145 million in annual sales.


Business survival, like that of the species, depends on adaptation. Your  final product or service likely won’t look anything like what you started with.  Flexibility that allows you to respond to changing tastes and market conditions  is essential. “You have to have a willingness to be honest with yourself and  say, ‘This isn’t working.’ You have to be able to pivot,” says Colwell of Plains  Angels.

While still a student at Babson College, Matt Lauzon wanted to digitize the  process of designing personalized jewelry. After raising $500,000 from Highland  Capital Partners, he launched a custom jewelry design platform for retailers in  2008; however, a year later there was no payoff in sight.

“In theory, it was a perfect match, but in practice we found that we simply  couldn’t change the jewelers’ focus on selling the expensive inventory they had  sitting in their display cases,” Lauzon recalls.

He reached out to his jeweler customers to solicit feedback. “One of them  actually said, ‘You have built something so amazing, with so much potential, you  should let people use it directly,'” he says.

Lauzon decided to do exactly that, and with additional rounds of financing,  relaunched the Boston-based company as, selling the custom jewelry  experience directly to consumers. He won’t disclose sales, but he has raised $51  million to date, including additional millions from Highland Capital, which  backed his initial concept. He has even hired away executives from the jewelry  world’s biggest retail force, Tiffany & Co.


Entrepreneurs exist to defy conventional wisdom. A survey last year by Ross  Levine of the University of California, Berkeley, and Yona Rubinstein of the  London School of Economics found that among incorporated entrepreneurs, a  combination of “smarts” and “aggressive, illicit, risk-taking activities” is a  characteristic mix. This often shows up in youth as rebellious behavior, such as  pot-smoking. That description would certainly hold true for some of the most  famous entrepreneurs of recent years.

In fact, simply starting a business breaks the rules, as only about 13  percent of Americans are engaged in entrepreneurship, according to a Babson  College report. Doing what the majority isn’t doing is the nature of  entrepreneurship, which is where the supply of inner resources comes in.

Are these traits in you? There’s only one way to find out.

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