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What Entrepreneurs Do Differently From Everybody Else

Becoming an entrepreneur seems like it would be pretty simple. Not easy, but simple enough, right?
by Conor O'Rourke | Jan 31 2016
Becoming an entrepreneur seems like it would be pretty simple. Not easy, but simple enough, right? What else do you need besides a good idea and a bit of money? A lot, it turns out.


So just what does it take to be an entrepreneur? It turns out that the skillset required to be an entrepreneur is similar to most business skillsets—it requires excellent analytic capacities as well as an understanding of how organizations and economies work. But the most important thing is the ability to appreciate and evaluate risk.

Just what does it mean to be able to evaluate risk? Today, we’ll look at skills possessed by many entrepreneurs, and explain how risk assessment fits into each one. Sound like a risk you’re willing to take? Read on.

They look for smart money

Most people consider starting their own business at some point in their life, be it mowing lawns or building a new tech company from the ground up. They might seem very different, but all business ideas have one thing in common: Start-ups need capital to get started.

For most entrepreneurs, this means finding an investor. And if they’re lucky, they’ll find an angel investor.

Angels differ from regular investors in that they offer more than just money to a project. Typically, angel investors have invested in many enterprises, and in doing so, have acquired tons of experience. They can share with you their insights and potentially save you from early mistakes.

Unfortunately, the primary goal of many entrepreneurs is securing funds as quickly as possible. In their haste, they often strike a deal with the first investor that comes their way—this is not smart money.

Risk factor: If you’re able to properly assess risk, you’ll feel confident passing over risky investors while you wait for an investor whose skills, connections, and resources fit your company.

They have an exit plan

One of the best ways to impress an investor is to show that you’re already thinking about an exit plan. There are two exit strategies for start-ups: being bought by a bigger company or going public. It’s important to keep in mind that it’s extremely rare for a young company to go public.

So effectively, having an exit strategy means that you’ve already found a target company that could be interested in purchasing your start-up, and that you’ve created the conditions necessary for the acquisition to take place, such as having transparent and organized financial records.

For an investor, an exit strategy is one of the primary reasons to invest in your start-up in the first place! Just like you, investors are in the game to make money. Thus it’s natural for them to want a clear exit strategy from the start as proof that you’re taking their interests into account as well.

Risk factor: Minimize risk perception for your investors by showing you’ve planned for your company’s future.

They understand expected value

Entrepreneurs deal directly with visible risks. They may not make an immediate profit, but they acquire skills and create systems and can change them if they don’t produce the desired results.

In other words, they enjoy unlimited control and unlimited variables, and the possibility for growth is vast. Most of the entrepreneurs the author talked with would actually be disappointed with a growth rate of 20 percent per annum.

Much like poker players, entrepreneurs understand the concept of expected value. This is the average value in a series of repetitions of a random variable.

Say you’re playing a hand in a poker game and it’ll cost you $1,000 to view the final card. You know there’s a 20 percent chance you’ll win $20,000 for the whole hand. So you’re coughing up $1,000 for an expected value of $4,000, which is 20 percent of $20,000. If you place this bet enough times, you’re guaranteed to come out on top. It’s no surprise, then, that many poker players end up being entrepreneurs.

Risk factor: expected value is just a fancy way of quantifying risk. It can help you with everything from buying used cars to buying lottery tickets.

They’re data-informed, not data-driven

As an entrepreneur, you’ll need to stay informed about data. Data, in addition to guiding you along your journey, makes it hard to delude yourself. If you run a media site, for example, you’ll need data about ad-click numbers. If you’re an investor, you’ll need to know all the figures about your investment’s return.

One reason that data is so crucial is that entrepreneurs often lie to themselves a bit when assessing their success. After all, they often need to convince other people (like investors!) of their ideas without having any hard evidence that these ideas will actually work.

However, if you believe too much in your dreams, your start-up probably won’t survive. You need to stay grounded in reality – and that’s where data comes in.

Data is the antidote to self-delusion. By allowing you to soberly measure your success, it keeps you on track: you’ll know exactly where you stand as you work toward your goal.

You shouldn’t become a robot that just follows the numbers, however. Your personal judgment is important too! You don’t want to be data-driven; instead, stay data-informed.

Imagine, for example, that you run a website, and your data shows that pictures of scantily clad women increase your click-through rate. If you just blindly follow that by filling your page with models in bikinis, you might undermine your business’s image or integrity.

So don’t become a slave to your metrics. Remember: data is ultimately just another tool.

Risk factor: it’s important to believe in your startup, but not to the point of blindness. Focusing on data makes you better able to interpret and moderate risks.

They focus the most effort on one metric that matters

One of the keys to achieving success in your start-up is staying focused. This is not new to you. In fact, it’s pretty obvious. But here’s a twist: focus, as an entrepreneur, means that you need to concentrate on the single metric that’s most critical to whatever stage you’re going through.

At any given time, you should always know what your most important metric is. As a start-up founder, you’ll have to keep track of multiple figures, like revenue per customer or customer satisfaction. Some of these numbers will matter immediately, and some you’ll store for future use – when you present your company’s history to an investor, for example.

The number you should be focusing on at the moment is your One Metric That Matters, or OMTM. Your OMTM helps you set clear goals and measure your success along the way.

In the restaurant industry, for example, the ratio of staff costs to gross revenue is a great OMTM. It’s simple, immediate, actionable and comparable: it’s a single number you can generate every night; you can adapt your costs to it quickly; and you can easily track it over time and compare it with other restaurants.

You could set a clear goal by aiming for a ratio of 0.25, for instance. That would mean that each of your staff costs should produce four times the gross revenue. If you’re below, maybe you’re under-serving your customers. If you’re close to this figure, you probably have a good balance between customer service and customer profitability.

Risk factor: minimize risk by focusing your efforts where they will be most effective.

They look for generalists

Just as not everyone has what it takes to be an entrepreneur, not everyone is fit to be a start-up employee. Which sort of person, then, will make the cut?

Surprisingly, it’s the generalists, not the specialists, who are the treasures. Start-ups in the early stages require a fluid strategy to cope with the ups and downs of a new business, thus employee roles should be equally fluid to manage these rises and falls.

Indeed your very first employees may move quickly through radically different positions at the start. Considering this, a specialist may struggle with this constant shifting. Imagine asking a lifelong accountant to start handling Facebook posts, for instance!

Your ideal start-up employee should also come with experience working in small companies as opposed to large corporations. Frank Addante of StrongMail learned this lesson the hard way.

He hired a qualified vice president of sales who had previously worked for IBM and Oracle. Though the candidate looked great on paper, he was near useless for the first three months. The reason? He wasn’t comfortable with the responsibility of building a system from scratch.

Being able to start small and work from the ground up requires a whole host of skills that a person often doesn’t gain from working in established systems. This also applies to managing people.

Teamwork is crucial in start-ups, as everybody has to contribute! You might find that you just need people who can work independently, and can do without managers at the start.

Risk factor: When you don’t understand the exact challenges you will face, hedge your bets by preparing for a wide range of eventualities.

Understand risk to limit your exposure to it

Without a robust understanding of risk, an entrepreneur (and her projects) won’t be around for long. Indeed, an entrepreneur’s success hinges on that entrepreneur’s own ability to assess and understand risk. Though it’s commonly said that investing is like gambling, it’s distinctly different from going to a casino: if gamblers really understood risk and probability, they’d be entrepreneurs!

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