Can Anybody Be an Entrepreneur?

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I was doing a radio interview recently when the host asked a most interesting question:

Can anybody become an entrepreneur?”

Great question, and one that I had to think about for a second before answering. The short answer is that anybody can, but quite honestly, not everybody should. I responded that way because I have learned that becoming an entrepreneur has less to do with what you know and what your experiences are, and everything to do with what you are willing to do to succeed.

We all think about it from time to time — taking our skills and gifts and knowledge out into the world and starting our own companies. So, what are the qualifications for successfully doing that? It might not be what you think: You don’t need an MBA. You don’t need permission. You don’t need to have experience in startups. You don’t need to have a revelatory experience where the clouds part and you are blessed with the mother of all business ideas. You don’t need a million dollars. You don’t need rich friends or family to back you. You don’t need to be a genius, and you don’t need perfect timing.

Although each of these things can help with becoming an entrepreneur, none of them are necessary.

There is only one absolutely necessary ingredient for becoming an entrepreneur. It sounds almost too simple, but everything that you need to be successful as an entrepreneur can be bundled as a mere sub-heading to this one central idea. What is that all-critical requirement? A willingness to do the work. That’s it, and there is no way around it.

The folks that just won’t hack it as entrepreneurs are most often the ones that are not actually willing to do the work. This usually means that they don’t have sufficient intrinsic motivation. They start a business for the wrong reasons. They start with unrealistic expectations, and find that it’s too hard or too difficult, and then drop out.

It will not do to be really hot on an idea for a week or a month, then slack off and start thinking about something else. The successful entrepreneurs are the ones that have a feeling that drives them forward to the next task and the next task. They know that every successful business is built by the completion of many thousands of small actions, one after another — over what will likely be years of time. They know that nobody will make them do the work; they are self-driven and will do more work with greater care and quality than they would ever do at a regular job.

Part of this willingness to do what it takes is a willingness to be flexible. To be successful, you’ll need to have a willingness to learn what works and what doesn’t and to adapt quickly. Some entrepreneurs are fiercely determined to be successful, and will drive themselves relentlessly to make their business work but lack the willingness to allow themselves to change. These individuals are likely to have a very hard time, because change and adaptation are core to building something new.

The reason that you don’t need an MBA, experience, or training to be an entrepreneur is that as you push forward to build your business if you are willing to set aside your preconceived ideas of what make sense, you will learn quickly what the core lessons are. These are the things that you would have learned (at least in part) in business school, but because you are learning by doing, you will know in a way that academics will never understand.

The fact is that the hardest things I have ever done, that took the most time, the most dedication, and most energy — the entrepreneurial things — have not felt like “work” at all. That is the little magic trick that lies behind the lives and work of many of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs, artists and athletes. When you can slip into the mode where the countless hours of work don’t feel like hours of work, you find the distinction between what you do, and what you are becomes a very blurry thing. You may be constantly busy and engaged, but it does not feel like work as much as a feeling of blissful absorbed engagement.

A pointed lack of this kind of identification with the workplace is a major problem behind the dissatisfaction of the classic 9-to-5 job. It is a big part of the reason why for many people it is such a relief to make it to quitting time on Friday. Don’t get me wrong, working for a company can be just as rewarding as running your own business. But, when what you do with your time is not consistent with what you see yourself as truly “being”, that disconnect can make for a truly tough and frustrating work life.

If you carefully listen to entrepreneurs when they talk about themselves, and what they do, you realize their concept of who they are is tightly intertwined with what they do. This is the key to their success, and what makes them do the hard work it takes to make their dreams materialize as a successful business.

So what about you? Do you have what it takes?

Kevin Ready is a consultant, author, and speaker. His new book is "Startup: An Insider’s Guide to Launching and Running a Business" (Apress, December 2011).