What Makes a Good Entrepreneur?

By Mike Peña, Stanford University

3 min read | Aug 25, 2015

One way to find out what makes a good entrepreneur is to, well, ask a successful entrepreneur. And if that person has done well in your chosen field, then it’s highly likely what she says will be relevant to you.

But if you want a more basic understanding, in terms of the right mindset and skills needed to succeed, it might make more sense to ask people who observe and invest in entrepreneurs on a regular basis. Through repetition and experience, these people can see patterns emerge in the traits of those who excel and those who don’t.

When you ask these experts, as we do every week in the DFJ Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders (ETL) speaker series, they don’t call an entrepreneur good or bad based solely on their net worth. Rather, they talk about the individual’s work ethic, enthusiasm and intelligence.

Pattern recognition is one sign of intelligence. But beyond the ability to see when something occurs again and again, the flip side of pattern recognition is noticing where things aren’t happening. The business-strategy term “blue ocean” refers to just that: a wide-open market that no one else has yet noticed, and so abounds with opportunities.

And in his recent ETL talk, venture capitalist Mike Rothenberg — whose seed-stage fund identifies, invests in and cultivates tech entrepreneurs — has just two words for those with serious startup aspirations: Start swimming.

As the longtime host of this seminar series, Stanford Professor of the Practice Tina Seelig has spoken to hundreds of entrepreneurs over the years and learned what traits the best ones have in common. She shares these lessons in her new book, Insight Out: How to Get Ideas Out of Your Head and Into the World, and in the classes she teaches in Stanford’s Department of Management Science and Engineering.

She also spoke about it at ETL last fall, presenting a model that lays out the knowledge, attitudes and skills that are crucial for any would-be entrepreneur. In a framework she now calls the “Invention Cycle,” Seelig says the journey from imagination to implementation begins with engagement — noticing opportunities in your everyday environment.

As co-founder and partner of one of the most prominent venture capital firms in Silicon Valley, Ben Horowitz, also knows a thing or two about what makes a good entrepreneur. He, too, wrote a book that sums up his insights, The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers. As the title implies, it aims to be a no-nonsense guide for entrepreneurs, explaining brutal truths and dispelling common myths.

It all starts with being able to build a great product, Horowitz said when he spoke at ETL last fall. If you can’t build something that consumers want, Horowitz explained, you’re not going to be able to build a great company. The co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz spent a lot of his talk describing how many of the non-technical skills that entrepreneurs need — people skills, management skills — are not intuitive. But they are absolutely essential to succeed and scale up.


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