I’m an accidental entrepreneur.
I never quite fit in with big hierarchical systems, like public education (as a teacher) and corporations. Getting things done, particularly accomplishing various things the way I wanted to accomplish them, has always been a struggle for me in these structures. I knew from the day I started working at a corporation after leaving a small non-profit arts agency that I would never quite find my bliss or even thrive in that type of environment. I remember thinking that my first job, an administrative type of position, didn’t add any value to the world. The position only existed from a pure corporate need, not a societal need. If the corporation weren’t as big as it was, my job function would be unnecessary.
There were other options for me to consider such as owning an independent school of some type or creating an arts foundation, but those goals required two things I did not have at the time: money and experience. So I stuck it out in the corporation for more years than I would have liked, and I put energy into hobbies like writing and blogging.
My hobby became a business over time, and you can see this in its incarnation as Consumerism Commentary. While all I was doing initially was learning how to become the chief financial officer of my own life, I became the CEO of a company that was helping me attain that first goal. Being a CEO has been outside of my comfort zone, and I’ve made a number of mistakes over the last few years. The experience has been one of growth for me, and I believe I’ll eventually get the hang of running a business and accepting the fact that I am an entrepreneur.
In the past, the word “entrepreneur” has always been associated with a negative connotation for me. I viewed people who called themselves entrepreneurs as people who knew exactly what to say to manipulate others into relationships. They’re savvy, smooth, and disingenuous; they see all communication and relationship-building with a purpose in mind — building their own business and growing wealth for themselves.
Now that I’ve become what other people often call an entrepreneur, I’m dealing with this cognitive dissonance. What other choice did I have, though, to work for myself? I was out-of-place in formally-structured work environments, particularly where I wasn’t free to take whatever approach to my work I wanted, when I wanted. I may have misjudged entrepreneurship, but I still see this type of posturing in my daily experiences operating Consumerism Commentary.
To add another layer to the idea of entrepreneurship, with the employment market still very much in favor of employers, the trend in financial advisory media towards working for oneself has increased in volume — in both senses, quantity and amplitude. I do agree that by finding a way to work for yourself removes employers from the picture, giving you much more control over your financial destiny. (A portion of that control just moves from an employer to potential clients or customers, however.) A typical advice-based article attempts to convince all corporate drones to leave their unfulfilling job and start their own businesses.
Taken to the extreme, a nation of business owners wouldn’t work. This advice, however, might inspire a small portion of readers to crash through their psychological barriers and find a way to add value directly. Not everyone will be a successful entrepreneur.
I think there are certain personality traits that lend themselves to being a great business owner, first from a Myers-Briggs perspective, where the best business owners likely have a profile of “ENTJ.” (After some quick research, I’m right on the money with this assessment; the ENTJ type is often called The Executive type.) For contrast, I am an “INFP.”
- Extraversion. Dealing with business issues is much easier for someone on the Extraversion side of the first dimension. This would be someone who feels energized after dealing with people. I find certain aspects of dealing with people on a business level very draining, though I am comfortable being among large groups of people. I am slightly on the Introversion side of this dimension, but a Myers-Briggs Step II assessment reveals that this is slightly different from my core personality, which would call for a stronger Introversion score.
- Judging. While my personality traits register on the Feeling side of this dimension, a Judging tendency helps people lend themselves towards the same working structures I’ve never been comfortable with. The same trait that encourages the hierarchical approach to business, helpful when working in school systems and large corporations, is also beneficial to running a business. I’ve also been uncomfortable judging the sincerity of people I’ve worked with in the past. Many of my mistakes I alluded to above are related to my impressions of people.
- Self-motivation. Without a boss providing guidance and deadlines, the responsibility for performing rests only with the business owner. I find that motivation is much easier when you own the process. Like students who perform better in college when they pay their own tuition, an entrepreneur’s business is all about that one person. The ability to design a business based around something you’re passionate about or particularly skilled at will infuse motivation into many people who’ve struggled with this in other employment settings.
- Forward-looking and big picture. Anyone who is content with repetitive tasks or would prefer to perform a job by following a step-by-step guide may not be best suited for a life of entrepreneurialism. Running your own business requires looking beyond the next step. It involves always considering the big picture and the ability to define goals. Not everyone is suited for this level of thinking.
- Determination. From the outside, determination can look like stupidity. Being determined in the face of critics, refusing to give up regardless of what someone else might think of your abilities or your business’s potential is essential to becoming successful. Not only that, but considering businesses often fail, being serious about working for yourself requires the ability to brush off the failures and use them as an opportunity to learn about the business and about yourself.
A careless attitude towards money. Many entrepreneurs have succeeded because they have had the financial means to go after their dreams. If you’re already wealthy, you can stand to take some risks with your business. Someone less established financially would find it much more difficult to justify the risks. For a business like mine, there was not much financial risk at the beginning. I did, however, spend almost all of my waking and some of my sleeping hours to finding a path to success, to the dismay of those who sought to spend more time with me.
The concentration on my own business most likely affected, though probably in a small way, my ability to focus on and care about my day job. I may have missed out on promotions because I wasn’t going beyond my job scope, I was using my own time to build a business. In the end, it was the right decision for me, but it could have easily gone another way. I would have ended up with a continued low salary and no income on the side. From a truly financial perspective, starting a business can be a careless risk. Good entrepreneurs accept this or ignore this, or are just unaware of this.
Obsessive-compulsive. With the biography of Steven Jobs due out soon, a lot of media attention has surrounded his attitude, particularly his obsessiveness. In the book, Jobs is described as not settling for anything less than perfection all the time, and perfection in his opinion could rarely be defined before him. He would know it when he were to see it.
From a design perspective, this has shown to be immensely perspective. As Malcolm Gladwell said in his coverage of the biography, “The great accomplishment of Jobs’s life is how effectively he put his idiosyncrasies—his petulance, his narcissism, and his rudeness—in the service of perfection.”
Generalist. Today’s economy seems to appreciate specialists over generalists, but I see the opposite as being the better approach to a fulfilling life — and generalism is an approach particularly suited for entrepreneurship. Large companies have the need for specialists, people who are very good, excellent, or best in the world at doing one particular thing. This can be a very narrow skill. An entrepreneur who starts a company from the ground up, particularly with limited resources at the beginning, needs to be able to handle many different types of tasks and goals, at the same time, while holding herself to a very high standard.
As the business grows, there can be adjustments. When struggling and to build their business, the founders of Yahoo brought in a CEO from the outside because running the company at a certain level required skills the founders couldn’t quite meet on their own. During the start-up phase, however, the entrepreneurs needed to find a way to tackle all the hard tasks. In this respect, being a jack of all trades, master of none is the best approach for an entrepreneur, provided that this particular jack is a very skilled jack in all trades.
Leaving traditional employment structures behind is not for everyone, and the advice we often see telling everyone to quit their job and start a business can be largely ignored. If you aren’t predisposed towards at least a few of these personality traits, success will be very difficult. If, however, you don’t have these traits in your system, you can train yourself to be comfortable with the actions you would be taking if these traits were embedded in your personality. Acting against your personal profile can be very stressful, though, and might lead to an unsatisfying conclusion.
What do you think about being an entrepreneur? Is it something anybody can do with a little practice or are there certain personality traits necessary for success? Would you consider starting your own business if you felt it was a better path to greater financial well-being over time?
Published or updated November 11, 2011.