Some people just seem to be "born entrepreneurs." From a young age, they've exhibited the traits necessary for business success — passion, creativity, leadership, perseverance, etc. — and when they announce their plans to launch a startup, their friends and family often say these ambitious individuals were destined for it.
But there's much more to entrepreneurship than having the right personality — and even if you have it, your personality doesn't guarantee success. You need some basic business know-how and an entrepreneurial mentality, both of which can, in fact, be taught. Experts weighed in on how an education in entrepreneurship, whether formal or informal, can help you and your business get ahead.
Evaluate your skills to identify gaps
The best way to begin your journey as an entrepreneur is to take stock of what you already know. Wendy Torrance, director of entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation, said startup founders should assess their skills, stage of life and whether there's a good opportunity in the market for their idea. Then, Torrance added, they need to figure out how to address any potential shortcomings of their business by building a team to fill in some of their own gaps.
"Sixty-four percent of companies fail because of people-related problems," Torrance said. "[Entrepreneurs] should identify their strengths and weaknesses with respect to the people around them. They might have knowledge about a technology, but a co-founder might understand the market better and help the company."
Once you've combined your knowledge with that of your team, you can figure out which skills you'll need to improve.
"Educate yourself to improve," Torrance said. "Education [can come] from anywhere — a course, a mentor, a program, etc."
Find a mentor
Regardless of whether you're studying to become an entrepreneur, it's crucial to seek out the wisdom of those who have been there before. One way to do this is by turning to a professional mentor to guide you through the early stages of your startup and provide valuable feedback on your business strategies and issues.
"Mentorship is everything in business," said Melinda Emerson, American Express OPEN adviser and spokeswoman for the OPEN for Women: CEO BootCamp program. "Startup entrepreneurs need sounding boards of people who are interested in their success — people who will tell them the truth and give them support."
Phillipe Christodoulou, CEO and founder of The Eco Laundry Company, noted that first-time entrepreneurs' lack of experience makes them especially susceptible to the pitfalls of starting a business. A mentor can prepare them for these challenges and steer them in the right direction, as well as provide critical psychological support, he said.
"There are moments along the way where stress can become so intense that first-time entrepreneurs can become overwhelmed," Christodoulou said. "Sometimes, simply being reassured from someone who has already been there that those moments of utter insanity are completely normal and not unique to the person experiencing them can be the difference between a breakdown and a learning opportunity. And that's a big difference. Bottom line: A good mentor is the best insurance policy to protect your investment as well as your mental health."
Business students may have an easier time building a network of advisers within their schools, but any entrepreneur can find a mentor through sites like SCORE.org.
Learn to listen
As an investor in entrepreneurship training, Frank Rimalovski, managing director of the New York University Innovation Venture Fund, has found that one of the most important lessons a business owner can learn is how to listen to customers. A lack of customers, rather than the failure of a product or technological development, is often the reason startups suffer, and knowing what your target market wants is key to avoiding this pitfall. Entrepreneurs need to be able to identify their customers' values and figure out how to align with them, Rimalovski said. [7 Ways to (Really) Know Your Customers]
"We really focus on teaching people how to listen," Rimalovski said. "Go out and talk to your customers. Don't sell, but listen and learn about their problems in the specific domain that you're addressing."
Both Rimalovski and Luke Williams, a professor at NYU Stern School of Business and executive director of its Berkley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, say problems occur when an entrepreneur falls in love with his or her own idea and assumes others will feel the same way.
Customers "are not embracing your idea because it's new, but because of the value," Williams said, noting that entrepreneurs need to figure out how to persuade others of that value.
Create good habits
Some people believe that there are certain personality traits that make a person more inclined to succeed in business ventures, but Williams said this notion creates a stereotype that is counterproductive to entrepreneurial education. It's less about personality, he said, and more about asking which habits one needs to enable successful entrepreneurship.
"Anyone teaching has to believe that, given the right tools and opportunities, every student can be a member of the entrepreneurial class," Williams said. "You can't change personality, but you can change key habits."
Williams said there's a set of important habits that aspiring business owners should cultivate, called "the five P's": perception, provocation, possibilities, practicality and persuasion. Perception is crucial because good entrepreneurs must learn to perceive more opportunities by connecting seemingly disparate things. Provocation is about considering those opportunities and not automatically dismissing them. Realizing the possibilities is important in order to avoid jumping to the obvious solution and instead experiment with other ideas, to see what works. Once those possibilities are considered, identify the best, most practical solution, and focus on what you need to do to make that happen, Williams said. Finally, persuade your customers with a good story and pitch.
Find the right resources
Not everyone will end up running a business, but there are many resources available for those who want to do so. These resources range from formal business courses and networking programs to seminars and websites offering guidance for business owners. It's a matter of finding the learning style and setting that work best for you, Emerson said.
"Once people make the decision to be entrepreneurs, there are plenty of ways to learn how to be better," Emerson said. "I believe in giving bite-size actionable advice to help people figure out small things they can do to make big changes."
"We have to stop believing entrepreneurship is this magical, elusive skill or personality trait that only a few people possess," Williams added. "We need to get it into a digestible process that people can learn like any other skill, regardless of their background."