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.”
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.
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!