Stewart Thornhill is a professor in strategy and entrepreneurship at Richard Ivey School of Business. Based in Ontario, he is a regular visitor to Asia, running lectures and seminars on entrepreneurship at the Richard Ivey School in Hong Kong.
What character traits do successful entrepreneurs tend to display?
The basic characteristics you would always expect to find are good people skills, a lot of self-confidence and high levels of energy. But the two factors that really distinguish entrepreneurs are perseverance and orientation to action. Perseverance, because no one ever just comes up with a plan, develops the plan, puts it into action and watches everything go according to plan. It's the people who give up who are never successful. The ones who take a hit and keep getting back up are most likely to succeed. And orientation to action because entrepreneurs tend to be the ones who have the mindset of: 'I've got the idea and I'm going to go out and make it happen.' They don't sit around and wait for things to happen to them.
Can you teach entrepreneurship?
We can teach skills that help people succeed as entrepreneurs. What we can't do is teach someone to want to be an entrepreneur. Perhaps our most important role is to help instil confidence in potential business leaders. We help them to see that the success stories are just people like them who took their chance, took control of their destiny and went for it. That surge of confidence is a remarkable thing when you see it.
People tend to associate entrepreneurship with new business start-ups. Is it important for managers and executives in established organisations to have an entrepreneurial flair?
In practice starting a new business from within the structure of an existing organisation tends to work best when it's kept at arm's length from the parent. Because processes, procedure and bureaucracy have a way of creeping in and strangling the roots of the new organisation, and there are existing players competing for the same limited resources within the company. Only a handful of companies have been successful at that type of corporate entrepreneurship. And if your entrepreneurial spirit doesn't fit, be prepared to accept that your mindset may not be in synch and you're probably just making everyone around you miserable, not just you. Maybe you should look for a smaller structure or a younger company. Start-ups are a lot looser and more fun for people like that.
What are the most common mistakes made by start-up entrepreneurs.
Overconfidence that they have all the answers. The ones who tend to be most successful are the ones who have the humility to genuinely ask for help from people with experience and to take all the help that comes their way. The ones who go in with arrogance and an attitude that they can do anything they set their mind to are in for a pretty rude awakening.
Can anyone learn to be an entrepreneur?
Anything you choose to do in your life is going to be a combination of natural aptitude and acquired skill. I could probably learn to play the piano competently, but it's likely to take me a lot of time and effort to acquire basic skills. There are folks who take to business like a duck to water, feel perfectly at home with cash flow, human resources, margins, etc. Others find it very difficult to grasp, but if they really want it, they'll be just like a short basketball player: they have to work a bit harder.
What role should the entrepreneur play in society today?
Over the past year in the financial community we have seen that there have been some very poor decisions made by some ostensibly very smart people. What we're going to see now is a return to the basics of business, and this is where entrepreneurs have a lot to offer - by not getting caught up in the smoke and mirrors of elegant financial structures, but concentrating on delivering something of value, because that's what's going to decide ultimately if a business is going to succeed or fail.