The life cycle of an entrepreneur

February 27, 2013

Are entrepreneurs born or made? The truth is that entrepreneurship is something you can only learn to be good at.

Are entrepreneurs born or made? It’s a business variation on the old nature/nurture theme, but still a valid question. You’d be mistaken to think that some of the most successful start-up founders were born with the innate skills to create and run world-beating companies. At least, that’s if you believe everything that you read about them. But the truth is that entrepreneurship is something you can only learn to be good at.

There is no entrepreneurial gene that you inherit to make you a great business builder. Learning to be an entrepreneur is like learning how to ride a bike: it’s only by collecting cuts and bruises along the way that you eventually gain the experience to keep upright – though you’re still likely to experience the occasional wobble along the way.

So what is an entrepreneur? Let’s chart the budding entrepreneur’s journey from innocence to experience.

The Stages of Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurial Stage 1: Idealism and Big Dreams

First comes the Eureka moment, when an entrepreneur gets their Big Idea. Already they can see their future mapped out clearly in front of them, from the initial electrifying jolt their new product launch gives the unsuspecting market, all the way through to sipping a piña colada on the Caribbean island they’ve bought from the proceeds of their Big Exit. But this is just the naive innocence of the “foolish entrepreneur,” as Kevin Ready describes in his entertaining Forbes blogs.

Early-stage entrepreneurs believe the compelling logic of their Big Idea can overcome any hurdle. Like all idealists, they see no reason to compromise their values in the pursuit of success, because they are convinced they are right. But harsh experience is usually waiting to teach them a few hard truths. Many entrepreneurs have hit the market with what they thought was a knockout new idea, only for the market to hit them right back with a collective yawn. Many start-up founders are left dazed and confused. Mustering the willpower to pick themselves up after this shock is probably the first test of whether they will succeed or fail.

Entrepreneurial Stage 2: Experienced and Agile

An entrepreneur who’s been in the game for a little while has picked up a few scars and realized that the ability to roll with the punches while still having the tenacity to keep slugging it out is just as important as having a Big Idea.

These mid-stage entrepreneurs have started to understand that the future is uncertain and that success isn’t guaranteed. But, they have also started to understand the value of pragmatism in adapting to adversity.

Entrepreneurial Stage 3: Veteran Small Business Leader

Fast-forward a couple of years and these entrepreneurs are now veterans. They’ve had their innocent idealism knocked out of them, but now have a self-confidence developed from having survived this far. Their hard-earned experience will help them avoid many booby traps and know a real opportunity when it presents itself. They are resilient and adaptable enough to understand that nothing in their business plan is sacred and that it’s better to walk away from a Big Idea that isn’t working.

Finally, they can take a step back and see the big picture. They start to see the road ahead, and, in particular, a future for their start-up which doesn’t involve them. In other words, they can see a path to the Exit. But, strangely enough, they’re no longer interested in seeing out their days lying in a hammock on a beach. They have acquired a taste for creating their own businesses, and they want more. So the life cycle of an entrepreneur repeats itself.

Do you have the traits to be an entrepreneur? Which stage of the entrepreneur life cycle are you in currently?