Characteristics of An Entrepreneur

I promised myself a while ago that I wouldn’t ever write this kind of essay until I become a  really successful entrepreneur myself.  However, I feel that I’ve changed my opinion regarding this.  I grew up surrounded by really successful entrepreneurs and as a startup founder, often surrounded by other startup founders there are some definite traits and characteristics which I have noticed.  This may not be a definitive list, but I do feel that this is pretty close.  I’m unlikely to change my opinion any time soon, even if I do end up being super successful.

I. Learning to Learn

I think there’s an important distinction between being taught something and learning something yourself.

Being taught something is what happens in formal education.  This is a far cry from being able to think independently and coming up with solutions yourself.  Even problem based subjects such as physics and maths are taught within very confined limits up until the PhD level.  Noam Chomsky has often spoken and written about this.  It is quite a large problem within academia.  He has stated that Universities often try to make people more creative and allow them to start thinking outside of traditional confines only when they reach the PhD level.  Obviously at such a late stage of life, most people are unable to think laterally and creatively to solve problems which as of yet have no answer.

Learning from a place of genuine curiosity is a whole different ball game.  The reason that it is so fundamentally different from just being taught something, is because you end up learning how to learn.  I think anyone can learn to learn, but very few people do, or understand what this means.

I always use the example of music as it’s the path I took to learning how to learn.  When I picked up the guitar I was 10 or 11 years old.  I didn’t have the Internet at that age, I didn’t know anyone else that played the guitar either.  All I had was an £80 imitation strat that my father found sat in the corner of some second-hand shop.

I think most people wouldn’t know where to even begin learning a skill from scratch – I sure as hell didn’t either – but I was driven to get good at it for some reason.  I just used to try to figure out theme tunes, listen to some of my brothers CDs and work out some licks.  Soon, I started to get better and better as I started to discover missing pieces in my understanding of music.

It was a painful process, because music itself seemed like a mystery, both theoretically and technically.  Why do certain frequencies and combinations of sound waves produce such strong emotional reactions?  And how was I meant to know what the difference between legato and sweep picking was?  But I somehow kept on picking up little nuggets of information from places and kept on putting the information together.  Over time music became less of a mystery.  In fact, now I think it’s one of the most transparent art forms in the world.  There are no secrets in music.  Everyone can hear every single note a musician plays and can replicate those notes themselves and use music theory to understand why it sounds the way it does.

When you learn in this way – with no instructions – it gives you a much deeper understanding of what you are doing and why.  You’ll try all sorts of things to get technically better and some of these things will make you unique and give you a style of your own.  Also, when learning about the theoretical aspect of a subject you will ask questions which have likely not been asked before.  I remember when I was learning certain pieces and I would ask questions like “why this chord progression?”, “why this modal substitution?”, “what happens if I do this…?” etc.  Most of these questions in music don’t have an answer, but it takes you on a journey that will be invaluable; it develops your inner ear and helps you understand what sounds good to you and why.  Also if something particular intrigues you, you’ll end up delving into a topic much deeper than anyone else might.

Compare this to someone who is taught a subject instead.  The alternative to the above journey is to get guitar lessons, go online and get told what to do, watch YouTube videos, buy music notation etc etc.  People who learn subjects this way take away much less than people who have learnt a subject the hard way, because they don’t explore and question aspects which are important to them.  Their goal is too narrow; usually to pass an exam or get a certificate.

Learning something the hard way, with minimal instructions gives you the ability to learn how to learn.  It gives you the skill set and conviction to be faced with a problem and overcome it with minimal resources.  It makes you realise that with effort, most things are learnable.  If your default answer to learning a new skill is always to go back to University, or find a teacher, it’s likely you haven’t learned how to learn.  You’re expecting someone to give you a map that you can follow, which is the opposite of what entrepreneurs have to do.

I think that this is part of the reason why people who have spent too long in education make bad entrepreneurs.  They presume everything has an answer and can’t tolerate uncertainty, not knowing and having to figure out a solution with limited resources.

In a startup there are only unknowns.  The problem you are solving as a founder hasn’t been solved yet, that’s why your startup exists.  There are no answers and there are no people who you will be able to turn to.  Even money won’t help, because if you can’t solve your problems it’ll run out and run out quick.

As Reid Hoffman says:  “An entrepreneur is someone who jumps off a cliff, and builds a plane on his way down.”

II. Producer

Being a “producer” rather than a “consumer” is often a direct result of having learned how to learn – it’s kind of evidence that someone has learnt a skill out of genuine curiosity rather than just being taught something.  When people are genuinely curious, they can’t help but start creating things with their talents.

I’ve noticed that entrepreneurs, 99% of the time have a personal history of producing a lot of stuff.  It may be writing – writing music, writing computer programmes, writing books/essays.  It may be starting things – starting clubs, starting a movement, starting projects.  It could be creating as well – creating new materials, new inventions, creating gadgets.

A lot of the entrepreneurs I meet are in industries in which they have very little domain experience.  I think that learning to learn and being a producer explain this contradiction.  You would expect for example that someone from the world of medicine would disrupt the healthcare system.  But people such as Vinod Kholsa believe that it’s always someone who is a complete outsider.

I think that this is the case, because if you’ve learned how to learn and already know how to produce valuable products or services, then what is really stopping you from going to an unknown industry and disrupting it?  You can learn everything you need to about the industry by yourself and then produce something of value.

I believe that this also explains why there are so  many successful non-technical founders in the tech space.  Some have even gone on to become billionaires, for example Reid Hoffman, Peter Thiel, Brian Chesky to name a few.  Come to think of it, for every tech entrepreneur I can think of in Silicon Valley, I can think of someone non-technical who is just as successful.

In the tech space there’s a tendency for people to believe that some people are successful because they were technical geniuses from a young age.  However, I have met and know of too many non-technical people to know that this isn’t what makes people successful.

The real reason why the people who have coded from a young age can become successful is because they’ve learnt how to learn and writing code was the vehicle they used.  They were curious from a young age, asked questions that weren’t explored before, came across problems and solved those problems by producing something of value.  That’s the skill-set that matters.  More evidence of this is also that technical entrepreneurs all say that if you want to survive, then you should hire people to code as soon as possible.  Founders have too much other stuff to do to make their business survive.  Do we really think that Elon Musks time would be better spent by him sitting down and writing some code for his cars?

This is also what companies like Google seem to espouse.  Eric Schmidt often talks about how when he first started at Google everyone that was already hired at the company seemed to have a “special skill”.  They’d be dangerously qualified to do their regular job, but if you spoke to them they’d all have something special in their past such as being a great artist or writer.  I think that Google just wanted to hire excellent people or “smart creatives” as they call them, but I think what they were actually doing was hiring people who had learned to learn and were producers of value.

III. Drive

I think drive is really different from determination.  The definition of determination is; “The quality of being determined; firmness of purpose”.  The definition of drive is; “An innate , biologically determined urge to attain a goal or satisfy need”.

Drive to me implies that a person has an internal impetus to achieve something.

Determination to me implies that a person is just reacting to an external stimulus to achieve something.

I think most people have been determined under certain circumstances such as a pending deadline or pressures at work or school.  But as soon as the deadline or pressures have passed, there’s no longer any drive left to keep learning or accomplishing something.

When starting a startup, you have no support.  No one will tell you what to do or how to do it.  If you don’t show up one day no one will care.  Some days you really do ask yourself; “Why am I doing this?!”.  It’s a disheartening experience and at the very early stages you really do have to will your idea into existence.  Without drive you will inevitably give up.

This is the thing a lot of people don’t realise.  Startups don’t fail because they were bad ideas to begin with.  It’s not even because they failed to get traction.  They fail because they didn’t even get started.

I cannot stress how important this characteristic seems to be.  Bill Gates went back to School after starting Microsoft.  I doubt that he would have done this if he knew that Microsoft would become even a fraction of the size it is today.

Most good startups which are going to have a big impact are usually uniquely unusual.  This makes having drive even more important, because no one will understand what you’re trying to do unless they sit down to really talk with you and get why you’re actually right.  It’s difficult to even get started at this point and get the metrics you need to prove your point.

There isn’t really any advice here, it’s just important to be aware of this and be aware that every time you’re feeling like giving up, you’re actually allowing yourself to fail.  It’s not the fault of your idea or the market, but of poor execution and lack of persistence.

I am still not sure if I possess the skills I need to make sure my startup works.  Every day is like a battle at this point.  I’ve seen some good traction, but there is no success until I can make it financially viable.  And even then the road is incredibly long as I am creating B2B software in an industry which is notoriously difficult to break into.  However, if it does work then it can potentially be a massive success.

I suppose the only real way to decide when to quit your project is to try to define a set of criteria which if they were to occur would cause you to quit.  There are plenty of articles written about how to stay motivated and keep going, but there’s not much written about the equally important skill of deciding when to quit – perhaps a good topic for another blog post!

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Self Development

When I was 13 I started my first band.  From the age of 10 I was really into rock, heavy metal and any other guitarcentric genre of music.  One of the teachers at my school heard one of our songs and asked what type of music we were playing.  I responded; “We play neo-classical, speed,  heavy rock!”.  I was serious!  This was what we were playing!  But the teacher just looked confused and said; “It sounds like rock music.”

“Wait a minute!  This sounds like Rock and or roll!”

I quickly learnt that it didn’t really matter what category people put our music in as long as they enjoyed listening to it.  What did matter however was being put in a box.  When certain people learnt that we made “rock music” they were reluctant to come and hear us play or come to any of our gigs.  It was hard to explain to people that we were influenced by jazz, heavy metal, neo-classical music as well as good old fashioned rock and roll.  It was clear that a negative cognitive bias had already sunk in and there was no way of persuading some people otherwise.

The last time I was in a bookstore was over a year ago (I buy all my books online), but the visit left me dazed and confused because of this very reason.  I wanted to get a book that discusses how to design a business so that in effect, you have no competition (Blue Ocean Strategy – highly recommended if you’re into this kind of stuff!).  After walking around for ages and not finding it, a member of the staff took me to the “self development” section.  It was there!  Looking around this part of the store, I was shocked…I had inadvertently read a ton of books from this section.  But as far as I was concerned none of these books were “self development” books.  In my mind self development 99% of the time is some “guru” telling you that anything is possible and motivating you to get off your butt.  I know that a lot of people also view self-development in this way.  But how can learning about business models, learning about how to make money, learning how to be more charismatic by studying the greats, how to get better at speed reading or public speaking be considered self development?  It’s the same reason the music I like to play is considered “rock music”.

Me, (notplaying “rock music”

It seems that “self development” is a catch-all category.  The result is that some awesome life changing books which can teach people important skills to live a good life are being lumped together with books which just try to motivate you a little.  Some well respected books are being lumped together with (let’s face it) garbage.  How can something like the Blue Ocean Strategy be in the same section as “The 7 Secrets of Awakening the Highly Effective Four-Hour Giant, Today“?

I started to wonder why certain books were being dumped in the self development section and it made me realise that it’s because people don’t know how else to categorise these books.  If people want to learn about how to become a better leader or become more charismatic then where else could you put such a book?

The main reason why this irritated me so much was because of the implication that certain skills can’t be learnt or that certain subjects are so “soft” that they might as well be dumped in this undefined category.  How did this come about?  It’s because traditionally society favours so-called “hard subjects” such as science and math much more than “soft subjects”.  It doesn’t matter how much science there is behind certain topics.  Because they’re not science or maths in the strictest sense they are regarded as less important and to a certain extent illegitimate.

I would argue that “soft subjects” and “soft skills” are some of the most important skills to attain.  I am sure we have all met that computer nerd who is a genius when in his bedroom, but then when you put that person into a social situation they’re just plain odd.  How can someone like this be expected to lead a team or work well with others?  Soft skills such as speaking freely, being honest, resonating with people, being caring, changing oneself when necessary, a willingness to see peoples true selves are the most valuable skills nowadays, especially since “hard skills” are being automated and therefore have become less valuable to the market.

I think “hard skills” are more favoured by society as they are more easily measurable.  Usually we measure “hard skills” as “number of correct tasks done” plotted against “time”.  It’s supposedly much more difficult to measure things such as leadership and empathy.  However, books such as Good to Great by Jim Collins (which has a lot of science and research behind it!) prove that traditional metrics such as economic growth increase when people concentrate on “soft skills”.  It’s just that these “soft skills” don’t have an immediate observable impact and the traditional metrics don’t reflect what really happens behind the scenes when “soft skills” are applied.

Often in peoples professional lives, when they receive criticism, they mistake this feedback as a critique of their “hard skills”.  But most of the time when people get criticism at work, a large part of the negative feedback is actually because of their “soft skills”.  However, due to a reluctance to acknowledge this – both by the person giving the the critique and the person receiving it – it is often dismissed as nonsense.  A lot of the complaints doctors or nurses receive is of this type, but due to the medical world being so obsessed with science and hard cold facts, patient feedback is often dismissed as a waste of time.

Another reason I think that people have a negative cognitive bias towards these “soft skills” is because they aren’t traditionally taught at schools and therefore people think that certain skills aren’t learnable.  I can’t even imagine a lesson about social interactions, how to communicate emotions or how to gain more confidence in yourself being taught at school.  I am sure that if maths wasn’t taught at school, we would bump into someone who was good at it from time to time.  We may come to the false conclusion that they just have a natural ability for the subject (in the same way that we may believe some people are just natural born leaders).  It would be incorrect however to believe that maths cannot be taught.  Of course some people have a higher natural aptitude, but we can all get better at it.  The same is true of these “soft skills”, but most people haven’t realised.

If it were up to me I would re-categoriese the good “self development” books and put them under the “skills which weren’t taught at school, but which are learnable (even though you may not initially believe so) and over time will have a massive positive impact in your life” section.  I know, not as catchy, but at least this way we can hope that less people would be deterred from reading some really great books.

Memory Box

What are memories?  They seem fuzzy and subjective.  Sometimes they’re vivid, but rarely are they true.

A year or so ago a patient came to see me in my clinic.  He was a middle-aged, white, working class man.  He looked so normal in his jeans and t-shirt.  I thought it was going to be just like any other consultation, that is until he started to speak:

“I want to kill myself.  I have a bottle of vodka.  I’m going to get drunk and crash my car on purpose.  I’ve written a note and left it for my loved ones”.  

My heart sank.  Not only because this was a last-ditch cry for help before he committed suicide, but also because it was a Friday evening and I wanted to go home!  I knew right from the first sentence that this consultation was going to take at least fourty minutes to get through instead of the allocated ten minutes.  Plus the Friday traffic meant that I’d get home around 7pm instead of 6pm.  Sigh…

Yes, you can call my reaction heartless, but I’ve seen  loads of patients with similar mental health presentations.  Would you prefer a doctor that gets emotional or someone that can sort you out?  If a patient came in with a cardiac arrest, a bad doctor would panic and get overwhelmed, a competent doctor would fall back on their knowledge and get on with the ALS algorithm.

So, instead of these cases triggering an emotional response in me, it triggers another part of my brain.  I automatically go into problem solving mode.  Who is at home?  Has he got any friends?  Does he take any illicit drugs?  How soon is he planning on committing suicide?  Has he gotten his affairs in order (which makes him much more likely to commit suicide)?

The bottom line was that this man was going to kill himself if I were to let him out of my sight.  I had to sit with him for fourty minutes until the “Crisis Team”, who specialise in suicidal patients, organised an urgent review.

Despite having so many risk factors for suicide, this patient ended up doing very well and managed to get back to his regular life really quickly.

One of the main reasons this patient and many of the other suicidal patients I’ve seen have made such a rapid recovery is due to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).  A lot of people don’t realise how much power they have over their own minds and thought processes.  Imagine that you’re in a meeting and a work colleague gives you a funny look from across the room, you may think that you’ve done something wrong to annoy your colleague.  You may end up avoiding that person and feel bad about yourself for some unbeknownst reason.  On the other hand someone else with the same experience may think that their work colleague looks worried about something and would go and talk to her after the meeting to make sure she is ok.  This is the essence of CBT – to “reframe” situations in our own mind and not attach negative thought patterns and emotions to events in our life for no reason.

This may seem a little “woo” for some people.  But there is a lot of science and research backing CBT.  Some people may be surprised to find that placebos (in one study I’ve read the placebo was water!) have been found to be just as effective as antidepressant tablets in several studies.  If this is true, then CBT is surely worth a shot, even for people who don’t believe in it or just think it’s too weird.

I remember seeing one patient after she had been enrolled on an intensive CBT course by the Psychiatric team.  When she came for a review with myself, we started to discuss what techniques she had started to use to cope with her mood.  She was another patient that was doing exceptionally well and had really engaged with her treatment plan.

She started to talk about how she was taught to keep a “memory box”.  I hadn’t heard of this before so asked her more about it.  She said that she had a little tin box which she had filled with cards.  Each card had a positive memory written on it which she could visit whenever she felt down.  She also put this memory box in the same envelope that she kept her suicide note in (she said that she wasn’t quite ready to get rid of her suicide note), so that if she were feeling suicidal she’d have to go through all her good memories before committing suicide.

I left work thinking about my patients memory box that day.  Our memories are really powerful.  I am sure that we all have memories which we try not to think about as they make us experience such visceral negative emotions.  I am also sure we have other memories which when we visit allow us to revisit some of the most amazing experiences of our lives.

What I find interesting though is when our memories start to get mixed up.  My girlfriend and I speak fondly of our time at University.  It was so exciting when we started University, going to a new European City (we studied medicine in Prague), having our own place to live without any parents watching our every move, the night life and meeting people from all over the world.  This is perhaps 5%-7% of the truth.  The rest of the truth was that we were flat out broke, living off of a few pounds a day, living in squalor (I remember how sometimes when you let the water run it would turn brown for some reason?) and we were studying like mad – getting up at 6am, going to University and then studying until we fell asleep at the desk.  This went on for six years.

The fact is that when we revisit our memories it’s likely to be really inaccurate.  We don’t really remember the whole reality of the situation we were in.  It is also true that every time  we revisit a memory more of the “truth” gets lost.  It’s likely that we add or alter something to our fondest memories, until it’s so far removed from reality as to not be relevant to our lives at all.

This is true of negative memories as well.  Every time someone visits a negative memory, it’s likely that they’ve thought about it so much over the years that they’ve altered it beyond all recognition of what actually happened and attributed a lot of meaning to something which is likely completely meaningless.  There’s no reason why if you know how, you can’t keep visiting the memory and make it a little bit more positive each time.

It’s interesting that with things like CBT, we are essentially giving people the tools to alter their memories and experiences in life and literally change a persons perception of reality.  It really does seem that people experience different realities depending on their thought processes, which is part of the reason why we all find it so difficult understand one another.

With time we will learn even more about the science behind thought processes and subsequent behaviours.  It’s not too hard to imagine that one day we will be able to dissect the thought processes, attitudes and perceptions of very successful people and apply them to ourselves so that everyone can reach their true potential.  The world is just starting to understand the science of yoga, meditation and mindfulness.  I am sure that in the near future people will work on their mind in the same way that they go to the gym to work on their bodies.  Can people really expect to be happy and fulfilled without working on their minds?  In my opinion it’s the same as expecting to be six pack shredded by not working out.  Sure, medications may help you on your journey in the same way some medications aid a little bit with weight loss, but it seems that getting the body you want or the mind you want takes real effort.

Switzerland, Veal, Aliens And Life

Here’s a question for you; would you let aliens look after you?

A few years ago I went to Switzerland.  Apart from the epic scenery and mountains, the main thing that I remember are the cheese and chocolates.  So much dairy has to come from somewhere and as part of our trip we couldn’t help but notice the large amount of veal which our diet suddenly consisted of.  As most veal meat comes from young males there’s a double whammy of guilt that hits you.  Not only are you over indulging in super calorific chocolate and cheese, but you are also eating really young “surplus” veal meat.

My mum said that she felt sad at the thought of just using animals for their milk and at the same time eating their unwanted children.  I tried to console her and said that at least the cattle in Switzerland were well looked after and whatever their lifespan was, at least it was a comfortable life.  Living a life on the rolling hills of Switzerland surely can’t be that bad?

I ended up thinking about humans and aliens (I promise this is not as much of a non sequitur as it may at first seem).  I started to think about how humans would react if aliens came down to Earth and told us that they would take care of our every need – food, water, sex, comfortable living conditions, entertainment – everything that a human may desire on the caveat that we would be executed at age 60ish to 70ish for food.

I think most humans would agree that if aliens came and offered this to us, we wouldn’t accept it and would do anything to avoid a situation like this.  I don’t think humans could be placated with a set of condition by which to live.  I imagine that if a scenario like this did occur and humans were forced to live within set parameters we’d almost be like zombies.  It would limit the full gamut of human experiences – the highs and the lows, real love, friendship, accomplishing ones dreams…

Thinking this through, it actually made me realise that most humans on Earth are already living as if there is an alien overlord.  Most people begrudgingly end up in work they don’t care for, they end up working for organisations until it is agreed that they must “retire”, at which point they can go away and wait for the bell to toll.

My girlfriend went to Africa on a hike last year and she mentioned how the animals in the wild seem so much more alive than the animals in the zoo.  She couldn’t really explain how or why, but they just seemed a lot more dynamic.  Although it’s much more dangerous for animals to live in the wild, what with the threat of a predator coming and killing them at any point, it’s the way animals want to live.  It’s their natural habitat and way of life.

I think I have noticed a similar thing in humans as well.  There are some people out there that are just grabbing life by both hands and living it the best they can.  They look different somehow, I can’t explain how.  They just seem more alive and grounded in reality.  A lot of entrepreneurs seem this way to me.  It may be a more dangerous and risky existence than living life according to what society dictates, but it’s probably the most natural way of living – to have a real calling in life and devoting yourself to a cause that is truly important to you.

It’s Simple…

Most things worth doing are actually really simple.

It’s simple to get fit – just eat right and work out a few times a week.

It’s simple to learn an instrument – just practice a little bit every day.

It’s simple to learn a new skill – keep reading and applying your new knowledge.

It’s simple…but not easy and that’s why there is so much opportunity if you go looking for it.