The United States has lost its entrepreneurship monopoly (which it never really had). The sudden successes of global competitors from emerging economies, as well as my case studies of entrepreneurs from Lebanon to Brazil to China, are exploding the myths of entrepreneurial success and exposing the realities. Here are a few of the lessons I've learned from my study of international entrepreneurship:
1. Entrepreneurship is not about innovation. In reality, successful entrepreneurs tend to make minor adjustments to existing products, services and business models, and then learn by executing in short-cycle iterations. This is a process I call "minnovation."
Take the case of Cinemex, which successfully transplanted multi-screen cinemas from the United States to Mexico City. As one of the founders told me, "the only innovation was using lime juice instead of butter for the popcorn." Nevertheless, these entrepreneurs changed the local cinema culture, dominated market share and made $300 million for their investors and themselves.
2. Entrepreneurship is not about risk-taking . At least it doesn't comport with the image most of us have of making risky decisions. Successful entrepreneurs reframe their entrepreneurial choices as few among risky alternatives. Starting a new venture runs the risk of losing money or the embarrassment of failure. But consider the alternative: staying in a salaried position and risking various things, like a lay off, an incompetent boss, moderate compensation and the missed challenge of pursuing opportunity.
Having made the entrepreneurial choice, entrepreneurs then carefully manage risk, in part by forming partnerships to spread the risk around, and also by breaking big-risk moves into smaller-risk ones, to allow for learning and adaptation.
Example: Mary Gadams, founder of RacingThePlanet in Hong Kong, successfully built a global ultra-marathon and sports merchandise event by using volunteer staff, keeping fixed costs low, rolling out different events one at a time and creating such a compelling venture that participants pay thousands of dollars months in advance, thus creating cash reserves that can be used to organize each event.
3. Entrepreneurship is not about the pursuit of opportunity. Opportunities are not "things" that can be pursued. Unwittingly, most of us view opportunities as ripe fruit hanging on trees waiting to be plucked. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, opportunities are subjective, arising when entrepreneurs believe (with at least some degree of accuracy) that they have special or even unique abilities, information, or assets that can be applied to an identifiedoranticipated pain or desire. A problem that I cannot address is not an opportunity.
The legal process outsourcing venture, Clutch Group, sprung from entrepreneur Abhi Shahi's amazing selling skills, surprisingly perfected as an Indian student selling Bibles in the Deep South to pay his way through college. These skills convinced him (accurately) that he could persuade some heavy hitting industry leaders to invest in his venture and join his team. Result: Clutch Group is consistently ranked as the leading legal process outsourcing provider in the market.
4. Entrepreneurship is not about passion. High commitment, energy,enthusiasm, hard work, perseverance, the ability to rally the troops--yes. But passion? Passion is an emotion that distorts and blinds; just ask Othello. In fact, the most difficult balancing act for the entrepreneur is to move definitively in the face of uncertainty while simultaneously remaining self-critical and open to new information.
Given Imaging founder Gabriel Meron took the Israeli developer of the world's first endoscopic video pill public on NASDAQ in 2001. Since leaving the successful venture in 2006, Meron has been working on a new business based on a simple test, which could greatly facilitate diagnosis of coronary artery disease (full disclosure: I am a minor shareholder in this business). Obviously, Meron is sufficiently convinced that this could be a big success to invest several years as well as his own money, and already there is scientific support for the test's effectiveness. But Meron knows that there could be surprises. He knows that he had to comply completely with FDA regulations to demonstrate the test's efficacy, and he knew that commercializing a medical product was a long process. Cool headed, rational, thoughtful, strategic, skillful and persistent are words that would describe Meron and his approach. Passionate is not one of them. In fact, passion seems irrelevant. So I would advise you entrepreneurs, leave your passion in the bedroom, where fanciful fantasy can be delightfully aided by soft candlelight, mood music and flowers. As entrepreneurs, lift the shades and let the harsh sunlight illuminate every wrinkle in your plan.
5. Entrepreneurship is not good for your health. Although a recent poll reports that 80% of Polish people believe that Polish entrepreneurs are swindlers, the image of the American entrepreneur is that of a paragon of mental, moral and often physical health. Yet the dark side of the equation is that a startlingly high proportion of entrepreneurs are afflicted with a nasty "addiction"--to challenge, stimulation, excitement, achievement, recognition and reward. Some are compelled by teamwork and leadership as well. As a result, they take on greater and greater challenges, and an exit from an old venture is usually an entrance to the next.
Statistics on this "addiction" are hard to come by, but it is epitomized by octogenarian Dutch entrepreneur, Bert Twaalfhoven, who in his 45-year career started 54 ventures, most of them related to the aerospace industry. Bert was not born poor, and his wife's ample inheritance funded his first venture, so he did not become an entrepreneur for the money. Bert was a venture junky. The addiction is particularly pernicious because most venture addicts like to get others addicted as well, and so they become angel investors, venture capitalists, board members, advisers and sometimes even university lecturers. After selling his last company in 2001, Bert took over the European Forum for Entrepreneurship Research, a program for spreading venture addiction throughout Europe through education and policy reform.
Summing up. The further away we are from something, the more simplistic it looks. Real entrepreneurs know that entrepreneurship is a complex set of activities and attitudes that defies simplistic explanations and nice sound bites. Sound bites don't make payroll, they don't close the sale, they don't bring the team on board and they don't raise the capital. A realistic view of what entrepreneurship is really about will help all of us be successful at it.
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