People often ask me what it takes to be a successful high impact business (HIB) entrepreneur. There are lots of answers to that question: every entrepreneur is different, as is every deal. Still, there are I think at least two characteristics that, if you don’t have them, you are all but certain to wash out as an HIB entrepreneur. What are those common denominators? The first is “fire in the belly.” The second is supreme self-confidence coupled with a high comfort level for ambiguity and change.
With respect to fire in the belly, I’ve worked with hundreds of HIB entrepreneurs in my career. Most of them – including some that others might think of as quite successful – never reached their business objectives. One thing all of the success stories shared, though, was what is commonly called “fire in the belly.” Having it is no guarantee you will succeed, but lacking it is a recipe for certain failure.
Entrepreneurs with fire in the belly are not hard to spot. They are the ones that live and breathe their deal. They are the ones with unbalanced lives: they lack the time and energy to be “fair” to their family and friends, or for that matter to themselves. They are the workaholics who are always thinking about their business. They are the ones who can’t imagine anyone – and certainly not themselves – pursuing anything else with as much passion as they have for their business. Beyond this all-consuming focus on their opportunity, they almost without exception carry some additional emotional and/or psychological baggage. Many are paranoid (as Andy Grove famously said, only the paranoid survive). They have egos that vary between huge and downright offensive. Most of them have short tempers and little or no tolerance for the shortcomings – real or imagined – of others. They are, as a group, not very nice people, at least not in the conventional sense. (Which isn’t to say that can’t be a lot of fun and be good, if not perfect, friends.)
Now if this seems like a lot to ask, well, it is. But it’s really no more than is routinely asked of Fortune 500 CEOs, or Wall Street investment bankers, or tier one corporate or trial lawyers, or top athletes, or…, well, you get the picture. HIB entrepreneurs are, by definition, out to change the world, or at least a pretty big piece of it. It is hardly surprising that they should be as driven by their visions, as committed to their passions, as are world-changing figures in business, the professions, the arts, athletics or any other field of human endeavor.
Beyond fire in the belly, and perhaps unique among their counterparts in business, the professions, athletics and the rest, HIB entrepreneurs most have a very high tolerance for ambiguity and change – coupled, paradoxically enough – with supreme self-confidence. Or, as the expression goes, they are people who are often wrong, but never in doubt.
Every successful HIB success story I am aware of has been a story with gut-wrenching ups and downs. I was once a senior executive – from launch through a successful exit – with a company that went from a $250,000 seed financing to a $2.5 million venture round to and through a $60 million IPO in nine months. It was an incredible adventure, one that, had you told me nothing but what I just told you about the deal, I would have concluded must have been a story of one positive step after another for nine wonderful months. There just wasn’t, it would seem, that much time for a lot of screw ups. Well, in fact, as little time as there was there was more than enough time for lots of screw ups. It was a roller coaster of ups and downs; nine of the most challenging, difficult months of my career, and nine months that the founder is still recovering from, more than ten years later.
No HIB grows “by the book.” Show me an HIB with a business plan that never changes and I’ll show you an HIB that never goes anywhere. Supremely confident in their vision, HIB entrepreneurs have to “roll with the punches” and adjust their thinking – in effect admitting that they have been wrong about various things – while at the same time maintaining the confidence of a person who is never wrong. It is a tough act to pull off.
Perhaps I am wrong about what it takes to be a successful HIB entrepreneur. What do others think?