Four Core Behaviors That Successful Self-Made Entrepreneurs Have In Common
Though my career has been spent mostly at startups in the tech sector, I haven’t ever actually done the “starting up.” I’m usually brought in to help fix something or take it to the next level once it’s been started. It takes guts and grit to start something from scratch — a special kind of moxie that you don’t find very often.
Some of the most talented entrepreneurs I’ve worked with didn’t join an incubator or have a mentor to tell them what to do. They naturally exhibited a few core behaviors that I’ve come to realize are the foundation of what makes a startup successful. There are people out there who seem to have been born with an entrepreneurial mindset, but it’s also possible to cultivate one. Start by focusing on these four steps to follow the road map other movers and shakers in the startup world have left behind.
1. Aim to start a movement.
The most successful startups I’ve seen came from founders who were more passionate about creating a movement than they were about reaping profits. Most set out to fill a personal need or desire and build it out of sheer belief in — and love for — what they’re doing.
Consider sustainable shoe company, Allbirds, which built a business in two years valued at $1.4 billion on nothing more than a piece of foam. Co-founders Tim Brown and Joey Zwillinger credit their success to “SweetFoam,” a substance fashioned out of sugarcane that sucks carbon from the air. Instead of hoarding the secret to their success, Allbirds published the recipe for the foam in 2018 and watched their popularity soar among consumers who appreciated the focus on sustainability rather than profit.
If you want to get inspired by similar accounts of entrepreneurial success, I highly recommend subscribing to the podcast How I Built This, which tells story after story of focusing on launching something meaningful rather than being driven by profits.
2. Don’t act small.
I’ve found that some great ideas don’t see the light of day because people don’t have the confidence to dream and act on a large stage. They get intimidated by established players and start thinking and acting small. The entrepreneurs who stand out are unfazed by bigger players and simply stay true to their passion.
For example, one entrepreneur (full disclaimer: she happens to be my wife) was tired of the lack of quality non-alcoholic beverages, so she created one for herself. Soon, friends began asking for it, so she decided to market it. Despite the crowded beverage market that’s dominated by huge brands, sales took off before she even started mass-producing, because there aren’t many alternative beverages that stand out and actually have market share. There is also a definite megatrend for the reduction of alcohol consumption.
True entrepreneurship takes someone who not only dreams but acts and takes on something challenging, unfazed by a crowded product category dominated by big industry players.
3. Get creative with bootstrapping.
I’ve seen extraordinary creativity from entrepreneurs who find ways to get what they need, despite having little to no budget. For example, they might test messaging on social media and give out product samples in neighborhood focus groups rather than invest in expensive traditional marketing campaigns. These no-cost activities not only garner valuable consumer insights, but they also help build demand for direct-to-consumer sales when the product is ready to launch.
There are many examples of successful startups that have had huge outcomes with little to no capital at their outset. I personally love the story of Lynda.com — a husband-and-wife team started from humble beginnings, which ended in a $1.5 billion exit to LinkedIn. While it wasn’t a straight trajectory to success, at every step of the way they figured out how to get creative with less and focus on wins that would have the most impact.
If you’d like to learn more about how to leverage bootstrapping, I’ve found the Ben Chestnut episode of Masters of Scale with Reid Hoffman, a podcast from the co-founder of LinkedIn, to be a treasure trove of advice from an experienced entrepreneur.
4. Put some hustle in your step.
The successful entrepreneurs I know have hustle as part of their DNA. By “hustle,” I mean the drive to accomplish goals, regardless of obstacles. For example, many entrepreneurs I know didn’t have a background in what they set out to build. Instead, they built expertise in their industry through research and networking. They asked others in the field for advice — and they didn’t stop until they became experts, too.
We have seen huge successes from founders who were outside the industry when they entered, many of them disrupters with a hustler mentality. Elon Musk went from software and online payments to building electric cars; Travis Kalanick started Uber with a peer-to-peer file-sharing background; Rich Barton began one of the world’s largest travel companies (Expedia) while at Microsoft, and Jeff Bezos launched Amazon after working on Wall Street.
There is a never-ending debate about whether entrepreneurs are made or born. I personally believe that they are made. Life situations and personal circumstances force us to make choices, and those who have cultivated an entrepreneurial mindset may see opportunity where others do not. Out of that necessity, a killer startup is born.