While the paths to successful entrepreneurship are many and varied, you’re likely to find curiosity and a desire for change along them all.
With Labor Day this month, it’s a natural time to think about the workforce. As a long-time member of the entrepreneurial workforce myself, I’m always curious about the work experience other entrepreneurs have had before launching their businesses. What do the résumés of entrepreneurs look like? What work history has been most beneficial in getting them where they are today?
It takes a certain amount of confidence to set out on your own, and everyone’s journey to doing so looks a little different. Some startup founders opt to drop out of college or skip it entirely, while others think that a degree goes a long way toward entrepreneurial success. Some feel like every minute spent working for someone else is a minute wasted, while others think you can gain valuable knowledge by working for others.
To get a feel for what experiences entrepreneurs have found most valuable, I asked eight different entrepreneurs about their journeys. While their personal experiences run the gamut, a few commonalities do shine through.
1. Hope Horner, CEO and Founder, Lemonlight Video Production
Hope Horner believes that any commonalities among entrepreneurs are established long before their work history: “Most entrepreneurs get the ‘entrepreneurial bug’ when they’re young and find creative ways to express this unique mindset.” As an example, she described one entrepreneur she knows who got his start selling custom pogs to his middle school friends. And she said of her own journey, “When I was in high school, I hosted events where I created and sold tickets to my classmates. For entrepreneurs, there’s an innate drive that inspires us to create value and ‘sell’ it to others. The natural high that results from that accomplishment fuels that fire and builds confidence.”
When reflecting on her work experiences, Horner credited her early commission-based sales roles with much of her entrepreneurial success. “In order to pay my bills, I had to figure out how to effectively do sales. My goals were also quantifiable, and if I didn’t achieve them, I would be fired. Consequently, I quickly learned how to attract new customers to the product I was selling and share the value with them.” Every entrepreneur must sell his or her offering, whether it’s to potential customers or prospective investors. Even if you have the best product or service in the entire world, you won’t see success if you don’t know how to sell it.
2. Dan Lauer, Founding Executive Director, UMSL Accelerate
Dan Lauer lived the entrepreneurial dream as the inventor of the Waterbabies brand, and he now teaches budding entrepreneurs and coaches startup founders in his role as founding executive director of the UMSL Accelerate program. When reflecting on the entrepreneur’s career path, he said: “I have noticed many differing paths to entrepreneurship. One thing is for certain—entrepreneurial success is not linear.”
Lauer pointed out that there are very few successes directly out of college, and he’s seen more result from individuals advancing their career toward entrepreneurship. He’s noticed a common path among founders: completing a degree in their chosen industry, working in that industry, then moving into entrepreneurship as a career advancement move. On a cautionary note, Lauer added, “A strong education and a successful career add to the probability of success, but they don’t guarantee it.” Failures and successes happen regardless of what a founder’s résumé says.
3. Sherrie Seng, CEO, Sherrieblossom
For Sherrie Seng, the most valuable skill that aids in her entrepreneurial success didn’t come from a particular job or degree program. What skill is that? “Understanding human nature and being able to relate to everyone you speak to in order to create genuine and invaluable relationships, whether with celebrities, other entrepreneurs, or your customers,” she explained. In addition, although work experience varies among founders, Seng said she’s noticed one similarity: Many entrepreneurs learn what they know from the ground up.
While there’s no standard or straightforward career path for budding entrepreneurs to get their start, Seng said it’s important to gain at least a surface-level understanding of a few areas before launching your own venture. Entrepreneurs, she noted, “should have some concept of website building or its definitions and how it applies to their businesses, as well as a bit of law—especially copyright and fair use. Not all lawyers are qualified, and hiring the wrong one for, say, patent infringement could cost you not only deals, but also time and money.”
4. Matthew Weinberg, Cofounder and President of Technology and Development, Happy Cog
Matthew Weinberg also noticed that the thread of curiosity seemed to tie entrepreneurs together, even when they come from diverse backgrounds. “While every entrepreneur takes their own path, continuous learning outside of the office or classroom is typically needed to forge ahead and become successful,” Weinberg observed. In his case, that curiosity inspired him to learn to code at a young age. When the time came to build his business, he leveraged both his self-taught skills and formal education.
Weinberg recommends aspiring entrepreneurs learn as much as possible, however they can. “Earning a degree may garner you more credibility amongst your peers, employees, clients, and investors,” he said, but “hands-on experience from working as an intern or apprentice in your field will help build the practical skills you’ll need to build a business or product.” Each type of learning path has its own unique advantages. Weinberg believes that no matter what route a budding founder takes to learn an industry, that education is key before taking the entrepreneurial plunge.
5. Brandon Harris, Founder and President, Playmaker HQ
Brandon Harris has noticed two distinct types of entrepreneurs. There are college dropouts, who don’t make it all the way through school before being called to something else, and there are well-educated corporate professionals who decide to go their own way later in life. “The most valuable thing for me was diving right in and getting started, learning as I went,” he said of his own path.
At the same time, he acknowledged that it’s imperative to bring some kind of relevant experience to an endeavor: “I highly recommend having at least a cursory education on the industry you’re in and then being a true expert in at least one industry-important skill. I don’t think there’s one particular way to accomplish that—do it however you learn best.” For Harris, that meant hands-on learning through internships and consulting. And because you can’t learn everything, Harris also recommends surrounding yourself with a team of experts whose experience fills gaps in your own.
6. Linda Farquhar, Founder and CEO, entreDonovan and entreDonovan Wholesale
Linda Farquhar doesn’t think that entrepreneurial skills can necessarily be taught, but she does think the current climate demands that women have a formal education in order to receive equal consideration. “I notice that many successful female entrepreneurs have MBAs from top schools,” she said. “One would think that entrepreneurial skill can’t really be taught, that it’s innate, and that successful entrepreneurs might not even need a degree. That seems to be a path that has worked for some successful male entrepreneurs—Zuckerberg, Gates, Jobs, Dell, and Branson, to name a few—but women seem to need more behind them.”
Farquhar further noted the power of a degree related to your venture’s industry: “It seems counterintuitive that innovation and the grit required to succeed in a startup would require a proper education, but an advanced degree such as an MBA or Ph.D. in a relevant field will open doors.” With or without an advanced degree, she observed that the most successful entrepreneurs are often those with strong selling skills. “Do not underestimate the importance of sales and marketing,” she advised.
7. Mohammad Johmani, CEO and Founder, O2
Mohammad Johmani believes the entrepreneurs who succeed without a formal education are the exceptions to the rule. “Most of the successful entrepreneurs that I work with have at least an MBA and six years of experience,” he said. “While many unfortunately believe that education is not necessary to become an entrepreneur, I disagree with this statement and strongly believe education is the first cornerstone of becoming an entrepreneur.”
Johmani credits his MBA with much of his success, going so far as to say, “My MBA truly made me the person I am today. I wish I had started my entrepreneurship journey post my MBA degree, because it has given me the edge that I lacked when I started my first company.” Johmani recommends that aspiring entrepreneurs accrue at least eight years of work experience and an MBA or equivalent before launching their venture.
8. Charlie Lambropoulos, Cofounder, Code Catalyst
If Charlie Lambropoulos has noticed one shared trait among entrepreneurs, it’s a dissatisfaction with the status quo. “This personal attribute appears to be far more common than any educational patterns, and it spans across industries whether they are in phases of rapid transition or have seemingly reached maturity.” He pointed out that entrepreneurs often have personal experience with a problem, explaining that they are then “deeply familiar with its nuances and tend to be most motivated by this feeling that ‘it can be done better.’”
He also cited a can-do attitude as crucial to entrepreneurial endeavors. “As a founder, you won’t have the luxury of relying on others for tasks that you may have previously delegated. And if you have partners, they won’t want to work with you if you aren’t versatile and able to jump in to help with the avalanche of work that lies ahead. Saying ‘I don’t know how to do that’ isn’t a satisfactory answer.” Instead, he believes that confidence in your ability to learn new skills is what separates successful entrepreneurs from the rest of the pack.
These entrepreneurs offered a wide range of perspectives, but they all shared the belief that entrepreneurs must be curious and thoughtful people who yearn to make meaningful change. Whether you start the journey armed with an advanced degree and a career’s worth of experience or a GED and a desire to change the world, you must embrace the attitude that you’re never done learning and improving.
Source: Forbes – Entrepreneurs
Author: Rhett Power, Contributor