What Makes an Entrepreneur? 6 Must-Have Characteristics

As more individuals flock to the entrepreneurship field, the definition of an entrepreneur has shifted. Successful entrepreneurs start non-profits, businesses, foundations and more, are all ages and from all education levels. However, there are qualities that all entrepreneurs have in common. Faculty and students from the Lassonde Entrepreneurship Institute and the University of Utah shared what they think makes an entrepreneur, all coming to common threads that connect them.

1. They’re Problem-Seekers and Solvers

Entrepreneurs are observant. And, when they notice problems, they don’t shy away or pass the buck: they latch on.

For Kathy Hajeb, a director at the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute and associate professor, a problem-solving mindset can make or break an entrepreneur. “Entrepreneurs are not willing or waiting for other people to figure things out for them,” she said. “If they’re waiting for someone else to solve a problem, that tells me that a student isn’t very entrepreneurial.”

Everyone in Salt Lake City values air quality, said Sam Hirsch, a computer engineering student and founder of Cleanfare, an app that encourages users to use alternative transportation to reduce emissions. “That was an obvious problem for me, and I decided that I wanted to see what I could do to help improve the air quality. Cleanfare started from the problem first, and then we figured out how to solve it.”

2. They Have Perspective

Entrepreneurs are busy people. Especially at the U, students are taking full-time class schedules, working jobs, volunteering, joining clubs and running or working with a startup. Entrepreneurs can break things apart with little guidance.

“We know how to pick and choose battles. You’re not going to win everything,” said Mohan Sudabattula, a biology, philosophy and health, society and policy student and founder of Project Embrace. “I haven’t been a great student. I’ve missed assignments and class for my startup. It’s about being able to do the minimum to get the maximum, whether that’s applied to personal, academic or business endeavors, it’s huge. That’s what we did with Project Embrace, and it got us to the TEDx stage, a partnership with the Navajo nation and an upcoming trip to Honduras. You have to think: What is going to ultimately benefit you as an individual and career aspects?”

Entrepreneurs are also motivated by the end of the tunnel. They can see the details of the smallest pieces of the puzzle, but also where they all fit together in the end.

“That vision of the future can be huge when it’s 3 a.m., nothing’s working and you want to give up,” Hirsch said. “If you can see that future that you want to create, that drives you.”

3. They Know When to Ask for Help and Work Together

Not everyone is a computer engineer, graphic designer, accountant, finance professional, marketer and manufacturer all in one. Chances are, you don’t know everything.

“Seek those that have the skills that you lack,” said Kristen Kessler, a sociology student and co-founder of PLUR. “There aren’t a lot of entrepreneurs that start and have every developed skill that’s necessary — there are so many different skills that are important. Without Isabel Kinkini [a co-founder of PLUR] I wouldn’t have gotten to this point at all.”

Jack Van Gemert, an entrepreneurship student and founder of Second Sole, noticed the same trend among entrepreneurs in his circles: “If you realize that you’re lacking a skill, for example, if you don’t have great interpersonal skills, find a partner. It’s hard to learn people skills and how to be all smiles and handshakes. I consider myself good at a lot of the things involved in my business, but not great. If there’s anything difficult with accounting or marketing, then I go talk to someone else who is an expert.”

And, while entrepreneurs are often self-motivated, they really do depend on each other.

“You have to be a team player. The idea is not what makes it work, you’re what makes it work,” Hirsch said. “You can’t just be an island, you have to be open, talking to people. Everyone is smarter than you and they all have great ideas. You can’t think you’re going to build everything alone and then succeed.”

4. They’re Passionate

You don’t stay up late every night, wake up early every morning, juggle school, work, social lives and sleep, sacrifice late assignments and meetups for something you don’t really care about. Entrepreneurs give up more than just their time — they often put their whole hearts into their work, because they love it.

“The only way that all of this was possible was passion,” Sudabattula said. “Inevitably, there are a ton of late nights. But if you’re up, forcing yourself to get a task done, then that’s a sign that you shouldn’t be there. If you’re up and you care about what you’re studying for and want to turn the page. If you’re excited about the dreaded hours of staying up in the morning, then you know you’re doing the right thing.”

And, even when the really late nights and early mornings come, the worrying about a project or event, entrepreneurs stay positive.

“You will always have moments of doubt,” Kinkini said. “But, your positive energy, your optimism and your passion is what outweighs it, always.”

“Entrepreneurship itself is so much navigating the waters of the unknown,” Kessler added. “You have to have that child-like excitement to be successful.”

5. They Fail. A Lot. And They’re Cool About it.

Failure can be terrifying. Often, failure leads one to abandon a project or feel inadequate. An entrepreneur, though, isn’t scared off by the idea that what they’re working on may flop; they’re excited. Their perspective and passion plays into all of their experiences, and they become more open to learning more about how to change and adapt their ideas.

“I think the reason that entrepreneurs make it is because they understand that failure is just your next stop to success, not this terrible, scary thing,” Kessler said. “ I think we’re both [Kinkini and Kessler] are very willing to admit when we’re wrong because we have a why for what we’re doing: Why are you here for hours on end? Why are you doing this, who are you helping?”

Once you’re confident in your why, it becomes a lot easier for you to find more room to wiggle and fail because you still have your why, there’s no shame in failure or being wrong because you have your why?

“Failure is huge in entrepreneurship, but we call it prototyping,” Hirsch said. “If you get to your first failure and think, ‘wow, guess I’m done!” then you’re never going to make it as an entrepreneur. It takes a lot of work and time to turn an idea into anything. You have to continue to care about it even when you’re thinking, ‘This idea is terrible. Everyone hates it!’ You keep working.”

Entrepreneurs aren’t just accepting of failure at face value, though. They’re prolific thinkers who aren’t afraid to consider all kinds of ideas.

“There have been so many nights that I’ve had a ton of different ideas that ended up not going anywhere but nevertheless, kept me up for weeks,” Sudabattula said. “I have a notebook of ideas that never went through, some that I’ve tried and failed, and some that now is not the time for. Once you get a taste, you just keep going. I carry around a little notebook that I jot ideas down in, a couple things a day to a dozen a week.”

6. They Find Comfort Outside the Box

Problem-solving, big-picture, team-player, passionate and flexible people don’t need predetermined structure to thrive. Oftentimes, they’re the ones who create it.

“An entrepreneur gets outside of the idea that we have to do A and then B and then C,” Kessler said. “An entrepreneur does A, and then skips down to G, and it makes more sense.”

“Entrepreneurs know their work style and how they work best, so they’ll subscribe to however they feel the best way to get the task done is, even if it’s against the grain,” said Sudabattula. “It’s about self-awareness, being a little bit of a hustler, being able to manipulate your environment so it ends up working out in everyone’s best interest. It’s being able to blindly walk into it and go from there, following your own plan. That’s how it was at least for Project Embrace: We became incorporated as a non-profit really early on, without a hundred percent clear idea of what we wanted to do.”

“I think they’re scrappy, curious, driven,” said Hajeb. “They’re comfortable when there aren’t clear instructions on how to do something. They challenge authority, and I think that’s why they tend to be thought of as rule-breakers and disruptors, when I think they really just want to understand why.”

While the characteristics of an entrepreneur vary widely, these six were consistent across a handful of those entrepreneurial staff and students at the U. And, even if you can’t identify these features in yourself today, it doesn’t mean that you can’t begin to develop entrepreneurial characteristics. Chances are, you already have one.

“You become quite entrepreneurial when you have to be, when you have a personal, family or community issue that’s really touches you, that you really care about,” Hajeb said. “Parents become quite entrepreneurial as they raise their children. People become very entrepreneurial when their car breaks down, or when they need to find a place to live. It’s amazing how entrepreneurial students can be when they have to get into a class to graduate, because it’s necessary. The challenge is training yourself to think like that all of the time.”


About the Author:

Jacqueline Mumford Jacqueline is a marketing and political science double major and frequent Lassonde contributor. You can find her on LinkedIn.

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