Troy Henikoff is an entrepreneur, venture capitalist, lecturer at Kellogg School of Management, and founder of Techstars Chicago. I recently had the opportunity to talk to him about whether the ability to become a successful entrepreneur is predetermined at birth.
No! I got into entrepreneurship by mistake. Like many people, when I graduated from college I wasn’t exactly sure what to do next. At the time, PCs were just becoming a legitimate business tool. I’d seen a tech company in Boston I was interested in, but there wasn’t anything like it in Chicago. A friend suggested that I should leverage my previous couple of summers of programming and start a consulting company myself.
After building and then selling that first company, I started several more. I picked up a lot of knowledge along the way and decided I wanted to help other entrepreneurs. That’s when I began teaching entrepreneurship at Northwestern and the University of Chicago. I also started a venture firm to invest in great people and ideas, and started Techstars Chicago, an accelerator program that mentors great startup talent.
Although you can learn a lot about what it takes to start a successful business, there are some skills that you just have to be born with. There’s a certain type of personality that does well as an entrepreneur, and that just can’t be taught.
I’ve thought a lot about this during my years teaching and working at Techstars. I have seen the most successful entrepreneurs have three buckets of skills :
Bring all four of those together you will have an amazing entrepreneur.
I don’t have a particular formula for telling whether or not someone has the right DNA, but you can ask open-ended questions that give a picture of how that person handles adversity, risk, and uncertainty. For example, you might ask someone to describe his or her ideal vacation. Someone who’s more risk-averse will have every detail rigidly planned, maybe even by someone else. That might be a great person in my company, but it’s not my entrepreneur. I’m more interested in the type of person who will go on vacation with only a rental car and the first night’s lodging booked. That person is looking for adventure and definitely comfortable with uncertainty!
I advise my students to find a business that excites them and a company where the leadership is whom they want to learn from. Then get in that door anyway they can, even if it’s sweeping the floors. The thing is, you’ll be so good at sweeping the floors that you won’t be doing it for long. Soon you’ll be helping with marketing, and before long you’ll be heading the whole department. If you’re good you’ll get more, more, more. And all that time you’ll get to learn from the people you want to learn from. Obviously this doesn’t happen at a big corporation with a lot of bureaucracy for moving people up the ladder, but it happens every day at startups.
It really depends on the portfolio of tools you have. For most people, going to school for school’s sake isn’t going to help them be a more successful entrepreneur. After I started my first company I realized I needed to know a lot of things that hadn’t been on the syllabus when I got my engineering degree. I went back to business school and took the 5 or 6 classes I needed, but I didn’t finish the degree. There wasn’t going to be a promotion for me at the end of it all, but I’d picked up the tools I needed to take my company to the next level. While it’s a great resume-builder to finish the degree if you have the time and resources, it’s not a requirement. In general, you learn best through experience. It’s more valuable to wrestle with a problem than to read about it in a book.
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