Anybody can be an entrepreneur, but not everybody

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I’ve been using this little phrase for a number of years to express the view that literally anyone can be an entrepreneur. However, not everyone should be encouraged to follow the entrepreneurial career path.

This perspective has been fashioned over the years by both personal experience, and by a careful reading of the scholarly research.

It is quite clear that there is no such thing as an “entrepreneurial personality.”

More than 20 years of research into the “entrepreneurial personality” has revealed that entrepreneurs are as varied in their personality as is the general population.

That is, despite extensive efforts to define this or that personality trait as essential to entrepreneurial success, none has been found. As it turns out, some entrepreneurs are extroverts, some are introverts. Some entrepreneurs are risk takers, some are highly risk averse. Some entrepreneurs are humorous, some are serious.

In a word, they are just like you and me.

What this research says is that there is nothing about your personality that naturally predisposes you to entrepreneurship, or constrains you to a “paycheck lifestyle.” Either career path is available to you. As such, literally anyone could become an entrepreneur.

Of course, that is not to say that we will all succeed equally in the entrepreneurial career path. There clearly are some things that will predispose some to greater entrepreneurial success.

Talent that is appropriate for one’s time and place is one thing that may provide a better chance for success. For example, during the last 30 years or so, individuals born with a natural ability to understand and process technical algorithms and computer programs have had a better chance of entrepreneurial success than those who don’t possess this talent.

Many of the leading entrepreneurs of the past quarter century have been software or Internet entrepreneurs who were born at a fortunate time when such talents are in high demand. Imagine the tech-savvy entrepreneur of today were he or she to be transported to the 18th century. It’s not likely their talent would be so valuable in that pre-computer era.

Although entrepreneurship does not require any specific personality traits, there are some cognitive skills that entrepreneurs develop that differ from the general population.

For example, one of the primary cognitive skills that entrepreneurs develop is the ability to minimize risk. That is, when many people look at a venture opportunity as too risky for them to jump into, the entrepreneur has learned to remove excess risk. In fact, that may be where the misperception that entrepreneurs are risk takers came from.

Most people don’t realize that the entrepreneur is no more risk tolerant than the average person. The entrepreneur has simply learned how to minimize the risks involved in new ventures.

Entrepreneurial expertise is now being studied by scholars in great detail. In the coming years, it may become possible to teach entrepreneurship far more effectively than we do today. In the meantime, it is worth pointing out that the road to entrepreneurial expertise can be long and arduous.

The research indicates that it can take 10 years or more to develop any type of expertise, including entrepreneurial expertise. That’s probably why most first time entrepreneurs fail. They need to cycle through several failed ventures to learn what is necessary to be successful.

The point of this article is that anyone who is considering venturing out on their own must weigh the opportunity costs of doing so.

I’ve already said anyone can be an entrepreneur. What needs to be examined carefully is whether it is worth it for you. Entrepreneurship, just like any other career path, takes time to learn. The more you learn the more you will be able to earn.

Can you afford to be an entrepreneur right now?

If you are currently unemployed, the answer may be “yes.” If you are fully employed in an engaging and well-paying career, the answer is probably “no.”

Everyone has to decide for themselves whether they can leverage their unique talents better through entrepreneurship or through a traditional career.

Policy makers often believe that entrepreneurship should be encouraged as extensively as possible. They set up programs and support functions to help all aspiring entrepreneurs, when in fact many of them would make better use of their time and talents working in a traditional career.

Just because anybody can be an entrepreneur doesn’t mean everybody should be.

Thomas N. Duening Ph.D. is El Pomar Chair in Business and Entrepreneurship and director of the Center for Entrepreneurship in the College of Business and Administration at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. He can be reached at tduening@uccs.edu.