Can Entrepreneurship Be Learned?

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg, Founder and CEO of Facebook — a born entrepreneur for sure.

This is an age old debate. I realize a lot of people much smarter than I have waxed poetic about it already. In fact, some really great studies by legitimate organizations have been conducted using millions of dollars in research. I’m here to offer my observation in a very non-scientific manner, simply basing it off of what I’ve done and what I’ve seen. So, with that, can entrepreneurship be learned?

Yes and no.

Allow me to explain. One of the great mistakes that most of us make is using a broad definition of the word ‘entrepreneur’. There really are a lot of different shapes and flavors of this seemingly all encompassing word. When I think of entrepreneurs, I think of four distinctly different types; small business, mainstream, growth and global. Let me break down each one and with that I’ll be able to answer the “can it be learned” question.

The Small Business Entrepreneur (SBE) is one we’ve all bought from time and again. The local shoe store, the lawn mowing business, the photographer, the single store Subway franchise owner and so forth. These truly are small businesses. They employ only a small handful of people (if any outside of the entrepreneur themselves). These are the main street businesses of America and they most certainly are entrepreneurs. The skills and risks associated with this level of business are ones that can be learned and managed by a large portion of the population should they choose. This doesn’t mean it is easy. It just means it’s accesible. Through trial and error, peer mentoring, following in family footsteps, education and sometimes modest sums of money, most people like you and I can learn to become an SBE.

The next step along the entrepreneurial continuum is the Mainstream Entrepreneur (ME). These businesses include all of the companies the SBE might own, but enlarged. More locations, more employees and more revenue. They also include Internet businesses, small software companies and other businesses that can produce $1m+ a year in sales, employ a few dozen people or more and make potentially a great living for the ME. Although this is more complex in many ways than the SBE, it too, can be learned. The ME may take on traditional types of financing (credit cards, SBA and friends/family) but they will only likely be of interest to investors at the far end of the ME spectrum. While the stakes are higher and the risk is greater, but again, through time, effort, mentoring, education, trial and error and good old elbow grease, becoming a ME is an accessible and reasonable option for most of us.

The Growth Entrepreneur (GE) can take two shapes in my opinion. The first is a startup that plans to have a large national or international audience that means it will grow into a sizable business in terms of revenue, and in most cases, employee headcount (although many software businesses can now handle many millions of customers with reasonably low head counts). Many of the startups that I work with fit into this stage. They are trying hard to build a big business. Their product or service is designed to accomplish big things. Like most businesses, the odds are against them, but the intention from the start is to go well beyond an SBE or an ME in terms of market size. This means it is much tougher to learn, but it can be done. Not everyone will be able to withstand the rigors and sacrifices associated with the GE. The learning can occur if you stick with it long enough, but one of the key personality traits that one must likely have is that of persistence. Without persistence, the learning won’t happen in time and the GE won’t emerge. So it’s kind of a “can be learned, but not by everyone” type of answer.

The Global Entrepreneur (GLE) is where I draw the line. This is a business that is meant to bring a product or service to a very large market. Think Google or Apple and in some smaller examples Toms Shoes or Papa John’s Pizza. The founders of these companies were born to be entrepreneurs and while they clearly have learned a lot along the the way, the things that make them successful GLE’s are simply traits that cannot be taught. How does one teach another how to build a search engine that will change the entire planet? Clearly there is much more than lines of code that matter. While I’ll write about this category in more detail in a follow up post, I can simply say this; the GLE knows no other way. They will risk everything and anything, time and again, to make a global impact. Anything smaller feels like a waste of time to them. It’s in their DNA. They cannot and will not work on anything less then something they see as a huge International business. While many of us like to think this is us, it isn’t. The world can only have so many entrepreneurs like this; they need the rest of us to work for them.

I’ve seen lots of entrepreneurs grow and improve over time. Often it is a function of runway, family scenarios and other external factors that allow them to find their way to success, or call it a day earlier on. All else being equal, you’ve got as good of a chance as the next person to learn entrepreneurship, as long as you know which type you are. Don’t be seduced by the media attention and riches of the last two categories. The World needs the first two just as badly, if not more.

Paul Champion

Mobile: 07540 704920

Skype: paulchampion31
Twitter: @blogapprentice


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