Among the hundreds of thousands of twenty-somethings graduating from American colleges this month, an increasing number may consider forgoing the traditional first job search and opting instead for what has become something of the new American dream: Being your own boss.
The latest figures from the Kauffman Foundation, which tracks entrepreneurship, show that more than 475,000 Americans launch new businesses each month. Of course, it's incredibly challenging to be an entrepreneur. Of the 500,000 some new businesses launched per month in the U.S., an estimated half will fail within five years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the same time, entrepreneurship plays a vital role in the growth of the U.S. economy. Which means: Small business ownership can be daunting, but it's also critical.
The million-dollar questions, of course: What does it take to launch a business? Who succeeds, and who doesn't? Many look to entrepreneurial spirit as the make or break factor, a way of thinking that often sets apart those who want to run their own businesses and those who do. And yet the jury is out on whether entrepreneurial spirit is inherent--you're either born with it or you aren't--or can be learned and cultivated.
Earlier this year, my son launched a menswear line. He had a simple idea, born out of personal need (as the best ideas often are): to create the perfect button-down shirt. That idea expanded into t-shirts, denim, a jacket--the perfect men's uniform that was well-made, stylish, and wearable. He had his work cut out for him, certainly: For one thing, clothing is a crowded market. He took the time to research the concept and the best methods of execution. He considered his partners carefully. He sought to make it, as many entrepreneurs do, on his own. That his father is very well established in retail could have been a help, or it could have been a hindrance. People might pay more attention. They'd be looking to him to succeed. They'd also be looking to him to fail. In many ways, this is the same challenge all new business owners must face: putting yourself, your name, your ideas on the line for others to judge. And judge they will.
Through my son's launch of Alex Mill--which so far has proven successful--I've witnessed the many challenges of starting a new business. It's not just about having a vision and the means to execute it--indeed, some entrepreneurs have but one or the other. It's also about having a true entrepreneurial spirit to fill in the gaps when something inevitably goes wrong. What Alex set out to do was perhaps influenced by his father's work, as many children's career aspirations often are, but was very much his own. He had vision, conviction, drive--something that family connections can encourage but can't replicate.
Having witnessed Alex's progress and achievements, I'd say that small business success is a combination of both inherent and learned entrepreneurial spirit. That while people are born with some of the qualities needed to be successful entrepreneurs, those qualities can be improved upon through education and experience. In other words, entrepreneurial spirit can be learned. Which is very good news.
Something successful entrepreneurs should aim to have:
Conviction. Being an entrepreneur is not the easy road to success. Sure, you're your own boss -- making the conversation in which you ask for a raise far less awkward -- but the hours are long, the market always crowded, the naysayers plenty. There will be discouraging news. But the ability to stand behind your decisions is essential. No one else can tell you what you want for your company, and don't let them try.
Drive. As an entrepreneur, time is not on your side. The best-laid plans are those that are executed as swiftly as possible. Don't sit on an idea or wait until you've had a chance to "sleep on it." Act now.
Innovation. The original brainchild might have been the thing that got you excited enough to take the leap into entrepreneurship. But longevity will depend on continually coming up with new ideas, from products to ways to market them to which audiences to target. Not all of these ideas will be winners. But having them is not optional.
Inspiration. You may be your only employee. Or you might have a team that looks to you to engage them, foster their talents, and involve them in the bigger picture. Those employees who feel excited about, and part of, the overall vision will be encouraged to grow alongside you, and work hard for you.
Focus. Establish your daily, weekly, quarterly goals and go after them. Connect dots on a daily basis. Avoid distractions, and distracting people.
Independence. It's a lonely road, entrepreneurship. Though your goal is to foster community within your company, there will be days when you wish everyone else would be willing to work as hard as you are, to want it as much as you do. But realize that your company's success does mean more to you than it does to anyone else. Be willing to go the road alone on those days when everyone else has seemingly pulled off for lunch. That's what'll make the difference.