How to Know If You Have the Entrepreneur Gene

Scientists have been studying the potential role genes plays in a person’s aptitude for entrepreneurship. I’d certainly be interested in their conclusions given my own background and career.

Both my father and grandfather owned small businesses, which makes me a third-generation entrepreneur. Does that mean I have the entrepreneur gene? I didn’t really think so — until recently.

Until about six years ago, I had absolutely no intention of following in the footsteps of my father and grandfather. The risky life of the entrepreneur did not appeal to me. I liked everything to be predictable and safe. I earned my MBA from the prestigious University of Chicago Booth School of Business and joined established, brand-name companies — Texas Instruments, McKinsey & Company, Greylock IL.

I never made risky career moves.

By my mid-thirties, I was on a comfortable career track as an investor for a top VC firm making judgments about entrepreneurs and deciding which startup deserved to get funding. But something gradually changed. I felt myself increasingly drawn to the challenge of launching and building my own company. The death of my grandmother convinced me that life is short. I recognized the time had come to take bigger risks.

Did I make that decision because I have a genetic predisposition to entrepreneurship? I don’t know, but five years into my new life as a  startup founder I have a clearer sense of the traits required to be an entrepreneur.

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1. A whole lotta passion and grit.

For an entrepreneur, starting and building a business is an obsession, not just a job. It consumes you. That’s how it’s been for me.

I was passionate about my previous jobs, of course. But it’s different when you’re building something from scratch — when it’s your “baby.” I’ve had to constantly visualize a different reality. That’s another important trait of an entrepreneur: being a dreamer.

Another is grit. Things will go wrong even if you have the most carefully-crafted plans. Things were the hardest in the beginning. Investors told us no. Engineers and executives declined to join us. Potential partners were uninterested in speaking with us. Today isn’t easy, just different types of challenges. Everyday is a new day in the trenches. What keeps us entrepreneurs going is passion for what we love.

You often hear about bankers and investors on Wall Street who make a ton of money but who hate their job. You definitely would not survive as an entrepreneur with that attitude. You have to wake up every morning prepared for the next setback…or the next success.

2. A little bit crazy.

There’s really something inherently irrational about quitting a solid job to start a company. The odds are stacked up against you. Many businesses go under, most entrepreneurs fail. You’re confronted by these facts when you launch your career as an entrepreneur.

You’ve got to be a bit crazy to want to become an entrepreneur. I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night thinking obsessively about an issue involving my company. Some nights I can’t sleep.

The potential to hit it big financially is one incentive for starting a company, but it is not always what moves one to become an entrepreneur. It certainly wasn’t what led me to start a business. I took a significant pay cut when I gave up my career as a VC investor to start my own company. For me and many entrepreneurs I know, launching a business is more than just about the monetary upside. It’s about making an impact, leaving a mark, doing something bold — no matter how crazy it might seem.

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3. Laser focus on the future … and the next day.

How I viewed and approached the future changed when I became an entrepreneur. Like many overachievers, I used to meticulously plan the next years in my career. I knew where I wanted to be professionally in two, five and even 10 years. But when I started building a company, the medium-term plans somehow became less important.

Now I am mainly thinking about our long-term goals and focusing on the very next day. I wrestle with the same day-to-day concerns as many small business owners: Do we have enough funds to cover operations for the next quarter? Are we spending too much or too little on marketing? Do we have enough staff to keep up with growth?

The middle sort of goes away.

In the past, you probably thought about becoming a manager next year or reaching some milestone in the next two years. As an entrepreneur your thinking becomes “I’m building this massive thing, but let me get through tomorrow.”

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4. Best and worst job in the world.

I was asked recently if I ever had doubts or regrets about becoming an entrepreneur. My answer: Yes, of course. They come at least once a month. It’s like a rollercoaster ride. The highs thrill you in ways you’ve never experienced. The lows make you want to crawl under the sheets and cry.

As I always tell friends and colleagues: This is the job I’ve loved the most, and it’s the job I’ve hated the most. But I would do it all over again.


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