The one thing it takes to be an entrepreneur

To prepare to be an entrepreneur, forget the economic outlook and your personal uncertainty. Just focus on this one key factor motivating each entrepreneur.

Brian Snyder/Reuters/File
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks to reporters at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., in this 2011 file photograph. Most entrepreneurs won't be the next the next Zuckerberg, but all entrepreneurs share this one key trait.

This article was supposed to be about why you should consider starting a company in a sluggish economy, but let's face it – there is never a perfect time to start a company. For those of us who have considered hanging out a shingle for a new venture, the decision and the process are usually fraught with concerns, trade-offs, and uncertainty.

That's why you should ignore the broader macroeconomic factors and instead focus your energy on building the nerve to take the leap. I've talked with hundreds of other entrepreneurs over the years, and I'm convinced that the single defining factor of entrepreneurs is that they have the gumption (or foolhardiness) to step across that threshold and enter the world of being self-employed. Once you take that step, there is no looking back – you'll pour your heart and soul into making your venture successful.

It's always going to be hard to take the leap to be an entrepreneur, and if you let yourself go down the wrong path, there are a million ways to talk yourself out of starting a business. The list goes on and on. So the simple truth is if you want it badly enough you simply need to overcome that fear.

In doing this it helps to keep in mind that you don't need to start the next Intel or Microsoft. There are hundreds of industries that have relatively low capital (i.e. investment) needs that can enable you to launch a new venture without putting the proverbial family farm on the line. Take my experience, for example. My business partner and I launched StudyPoint, our first company, in 1999 when we were both in our early 20s. We had minimal startup capital – just a total of $16,000 in combined savings – and even less experience. But our business was in the tutoring industry and as a result our startup expenses were almost negligible. It was a low-tech business in an industry in which we could learn as we went.

That gave us the opportunity to make and learn from an awful lot of mistakes and today it has resulted in a national company with hundreds of employees and a tremendously innovative operation. We're a long way from where we started and we would never have arrived here if we had tried to bite off the whole thing at once. What's more, we've since launched two separate technology ventures – endeavors that wouldn't have been within our means a decade ago, but are now as a result of everything we have learned from growing StudyPoint.

Likewise, keep in mind that even in more complex industries like e-commerce and consumer goods it's getting easier and easier to test business and product ideas without breaking the bank. In e-commerce, for instance, the lean start-up movement is bringing a new philosophy to bear on how to get low-cost market feedback on new products and services. And even in consumer products, the advent of three-dimensional printing is making it possible for potential entrepreneurs to build extremely low cost prototypes of new product ideas. These prototypes can be used to get invaluable feedback from potential users – well before you've had to pay for the machines you'd need to actually manufacture the real thing.

Equally important in building the nerve to take the leap is keeping in mind all of the rewards. Owning a company can be the path to a diverse set of life goals. Whether your aim is to build wealth, craft a lifestyle that permits more time with your family, broaden your legacy and impact on the world, or something else – I believe that all of these things are more readily attainable when you are your own boss. Without question they will take sacrifice in the early years, but in the long run you'll have more control over your path and more opportunities to focus on your priorities. Again, take my own experience. I started out wanting to spend my career teaching, but because of a series of random but fortunate events, I ended up starting an education company. In the past 13 years, StudyPoint has helped over 20,000 students, a scale of social impact I never could have achieved even in a full lifetime of teaching. I know entrepreneurs who have used their business to build wealth, to achieve a work/life balance that corporate America would never permit, and to realize a million other personal and professional goals that would have been far more challenging as an employee than an owner.

Lastly, two critically important notes in terms of the rewards. First – the rewards of entrepreneurship evolve in ways that are almost impossible to expect. I used to think that I wouldn't be happy running a widget factory, and was thankful that I stumbled into the education business. While my pride in helping kids find success in school is undiminished, I now take equal pride in the organization we have created. I now realize I could enjoy running a widget factory as long as it was a great place to work – where people have fun and take pride in their results. Second – and this is perhaps the most compelling reason to make the leap: Entrepreneurship offers one of the surest means of realizing your individual potential. We've all heard of the Jack Welchs of the world, but what we haven't heard of are the thousands of people with equal talent whose potential was unrealized because of bureaucracy and politics inherent to large organizations. Many a great leader never made the corner suite because some small but real part of their future was in someone else's hands.

Whether your future is managing a small mom and pop outfit in your hometown, or the creation of the next Apple or Google, at least as an entrepreneur you'll always know that nothing held you back from realizing your fullest potential.

– Rich Enos is cofounder of four education companies: StudyPoint, PrepNow, The Writing Faculty, and YourAppAdviser.

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