John C. Maxwell: Do You Have What It Takes to Be an Entrepreneur?

UPDATED: February 18, 2016
PUBLISHED: July 17, 2015

Imagine you’ve been offered a fantastic position with an industry-leading company. It’s the kind of job people kill for. The pay is outrageous, the hours are flexible, and your title would guarantee you respect no matter where you went in town.

Now imagine that, at the same time, you’ve got an idea—potentially a brilliant breakthrough in an emerging field. Other people are working on similar concepts, but you’re pretty certain your vision will not only win out, but also set the standard for the  future.

What would you do? Accept the comfortable job with the big salary and easy hours? Or bet on yourself and your idea, imagining what could be? It might sound like a thought exercise, but it’s a very real decision that Henry Ford faced in 1899. An engineer at the Edison Illuminating Power Plant in Detroit, Ford had just built his third car and had several backers encouraging him to pursue his development of more gasoline-powered automobiles. At the same time, Thomas Edison’s company offered Ford a major promotion if he would give up work on his gas-powered car and instead focus on electricity.

Ford thought it over. The decision couldn’t have been as easy as it now seems in the rearview mirror of a Mustang. In the end, he walked away from Edison and began the Detroit Motor Co.

It promptly failed! So he and his backers began the Henry Ford Co. It failed, too. It wasn’t until his third attempt, the Ford Motor Co., that the idea took hold and radically reshaped history.

I love folks who have the guts to try something new or who are convinced their ideas can change the world for the better. There’s an excitement about them that’s contagious. Their entrepreneurial spirit is powerful. It’s a gift not bestowed on everyone. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot from my own journey, as well as the journeys of others, and I’ve discovered several characteristics common to entrepreneurs. Here are my top five; see if you identify with any of them.

1. Passion

No successful venture can get off the ground without starting power, the energy to invest in your idea and set yourself apart. But starting power lasts only for a season. Soon you’ll run into challenges and obstacles that require something more. That’s when your enduring passion gives you the staying power to stick to the course when things get tough.

2. Risk Tolerance

Taking action carries risks. But so does inaction. Entrepreneurs know when to roll the dice intelligently, and in doing so, they gain two distinct advantages: knowledge and wisdom. Because entrepreneurs are willing to try when others won’t, they learn faster, experience more, win bigger victories and develop better solutions.

3. People Skills

All things being equal, people will work with people they like; all things being unequal, they still will work with people they like. I call that the friendship principle. Whether it’s your own team members or your customers, you must understand people, add value to them, and work hard to build and maintain those relationships. Zig Ziglar used to say that if you’ll add value to people, they’ll add value to you.

4. Fondness for Failure

Over the course of my career, I’ve learned that failure isn’t fatal; rather, it has become my friend (even if it doesn’t feel that way in the moment). Whether your mistake is a mere tumble or a spectacular crash, no failure is wasted as long as you ask yourself, What did I learn? As I’ve often said, experience alone won’t help much, but evaluated experience is the best teacher. Learn from your mistakes and you’ll be miles ahead of everyone else.

5. Decisiveness

The U.S. Marines have a list of the 14 traits that define leaders. Among them is decisiveness, the ability to make quick decisions with the facts available and the wisdom accrued through experience. It’s key for entrepreneurs as well; being able to seize opportunities at the right time is critical for success. As Ronald Reagan once said, “If you don’t make your own decisions, somebody else makes them for you.”

Back to our friend Mr. Ford, who once reflected, “One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do.” He was right about that. Entrepreneurship isn’t easy, and it’s not for the faint of heart. For every story like Ford’s, there are many others that didn’t have such a happy ending—a daunting reality that aspiring business owners must face.

But for those who have the confidence and those traits we talked about, the challenges of building something new are worth it. Entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes, but they all share a bit of daredevil in their internal wiring.

If you’ve been thinking about chasing a dream of your own, try taking this short quiz. It’ll lend some perspective as you consider the big question of entrepreneurship:

1. Are you passionate about your venture?
2. Are you a promoter?
3. Can you handle stress?
4. Are you healthy?
5. Are you comfortable with risk?
6. Do you have strong people skills?
7. Do you embrace failure as a friend?
8. Are you creative in problem-solving?
9. Are you competitive?
10. Can you handle criticism well?
11. Are you optimistic?
12. Are you decisive?

Count the number of times you answered yes:

(1-4) Study up. Talk to someone successful to see how you can develop the traits you’re missing.
(5-8) You show potential. You show some entrepreneurial qualities, but take a look at your negative responses and see if there are ways to improve.
(9-12) Bring it on! You have an entrepreneurial mindset. Create a solid business plan and take the plunge!

Do you have what it takes?

Avoid the 8 most common mistakes entrepreneurs make—and defy the odds.

John C. Maxwell, an internationally respected leadership expert, speaker, and author who has sold more than 18 million books, has been named an inaugural SUCCESS Ambassador. Dr. Maxwell is the founder of EQUIP, a non-profit organization that has trained more than 5 million leaders in 126 countries worldwide. A New York Times, Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek; best-selling author, Maxwell has written three books that have sold more than a million copies.