Whenever I speak with would-be entrepreneurs, one issue that comes up is the fear of failure. True, many don’t say this outright: instead, they talk about a lack of capital, financial insecurity, lack of a viable product, and so on. These are all legitimate concerns, of course; anyone who has started their own business understands just how difficult it is to make ends meet, and how stressful it can be—both on yourself and your loved ones.
But here’s the thing: these are all problems that can be overcome. More importantly, they point to a deeper problem: the nagging worry that you’re not good enough, that you won’t succeed. This bars most people from taking that initial step; many quit before they even get to the starting line.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to criticize those who back out, because I don’t know their circumstances. But Hunter Thompson said it best: “Life isn’t a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty/well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a ride!’”
This is a powerful way to look at it, and it gets to the heart of the mindset entrepreneurs must have: The will to embark on an adventure.
To be honest, you can begin wherever you want—or wherever you need. There are plenty of guides online about how to be an entrepreneur. There are even tips for starting a business with no money or experience. I’ve done that—and it’s more feasible than you think if you’re motivated.
Now, if you start anywhere, you’ll probably fall down more than a few times. Still, the lessons you’ll learn will benefit you greatly later on. When I founded Titan Aerospace with the goal of building a lightweight, low-cost, high-altitude drone that could be powered by the sun and fly for years on end, I didn’t know a thing about aerospace engineering. True, I grew up around planes my whole life, even getting my pilot’s license before I got my driver’s permit. But all the same, I didn’t know the ins-and-outs of CNC, CAD, fluid dynamics, and all the details that go into building aircraft rather than flying them.
I had to learn all of this from scratch, so I just started with Wikipedia. Eventually, I learned enough to build out a fantastic team: dedicated, hardworking, and whip-smart, with formal engineering degrees and experience. But if I had gone to school and climbed a career ladder to become an expert in the field (or listened to my gnawing doubts), then Titan Aerospace would have remained a dream deferred. And those sorts of dreams are always the worst ones—simply because you are stuck with an endless cycle of what-ifs.
By definition, an entrepreneur is someone who starts a business, taking on financial and personal risks to do so. It takes a certain kind of person to do this.
Many articles that discuss the characteristics of entrepreneurs will feature words like ‘motivation’, ‘creativity’, ‘versatility’, ‘risk tolerance’, and ‘decisiveness’. Of course, some have these qualities naturally, but they can be gained from experience. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that they can’t be taught in a classroom, but rather learned from your own experience or transmitted from a mentor.
The distinction isn’t just for the sake of debate; it goes to the heart of what sort of preparation is best for an entrepreneur. While reading all the information out there can help, entrepreneurship isn’t something you study for, and you don’t need to take a class. You don’t learn to be an entrepreneur in the same way you would learn an academic subject. Instead, you must experience it.
Think about it like this: people pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for advanced education, such as an MBA. Yet not only are MBAs unlikely to improve your earning power, they’re also useless for entrepreneurs. One CEO puts it this way: the skills you need to succeed as the owner of a business are not what you learn in b-school. You’ll need to personalize your service, customize your access, create a great experience, understand your customer, and so forth.
In short, you need to be flexible, and these skills aren’t exactly emphasized in an academic setting. My own life experiences were the best teacher. Living in Montana aged 10, I frequently wandered throughout the wilderness. In California at the age of 12, I worked at my mom’s restaurant and saved enough money from tips to buy a 25-foot sailboat, and my younger brother and I would take it out to the islands along the beautiful, sunny coast for days at a time.
All this is to say that exploring does wonders for your creativity and critical thinking. I was lucky enough to have an unstructured existence for much of my early life, which allowed me to learn by doing. Research confirms this: scientists in Buenos Aires found that exposing adult mice to new, exciting circumstances helped them rewire the neurons in their brains, allowing them to become more creative and perform better in tests.
I’m not saying to abandon your spouse and children and run off to another country, of course. But as an entrepreneur, embrace ambiguity. In this job, you’ll have to learn on the fly, and to do so effectively, you’ll need to cultivate certain traits. These include curiosity, adaptability, calm, resilience, and, of course, a spirit of adventure.
Mentors come in all forms, and can save you a lot of grief. Think about some of the great entrepreneurs of our time. Many credit their success to mentors. For instance, Warren Buffett mentored Bill Gates and Steve Jobs helped out Mark Zuckerberg. Obviously, it’s a bit harder to get guidance from billionaires, but know that mentors are all around us.
But even before you get your business off the ground, a mentor is invaluable. For one, when you surround yourself with people succeeding at entrepreneurialism, you’re more likely to go out and try. For another, a mentor can help you chart the right course, whether it’s building a viable business model, plugging the holes in your plan, knowing when to get venture capital, or figuring out which government incentives and programs to apply for.
When I reflect on my own entrepreneurial ventures, I realize just how much trouble I would have avoided if I had strong, experienced mentors on my side. Creating Titan would have been less painful, and perhaps I would have grown the company even more. I could have reached out to more investors than I did, enrolled in a startup incubator, situated myself in a tech-friendly location (such as Silicon Valley), and overall, had a smoother, less painful experience. True, the lessons I learned were worth the tears, sweat, and suffering, but maybe if I had reached out to a mentor, Titan could have been even bigger or more effective and certainly far better financed.
As an aspiring, ambitious entrepreneur, understand one thing: execution trumps ideas every time. Anyone sitting on their couch can have an idea; rarer still are those who act on their divine inspiration and build something tangible, whether it’s a work of art or a business, from it.
In the end, I think Thomas Edison said it best: “The value of an idea lies in the using of it.” So go out there and use your idea (or get other people to). That’s the only way you’ll succeed.