Made to fly

Following on from yesterday’s blog, I’ve spent quite some time contemplating the success (and failures) of iconic men and women throughout history, with a particular fascination for what it is that makes people (entrepreneurs) successful. I love history, not simply because it involves gripping tales of human lives over thousands of years, but more because history is in fact a record of lessons learned and documented by some of the greatest men and women that have ever lived. Researching the incredible stories of human successes, I’ve become acutely aware that our understanding of entrepreneurship has become vastly distorted and somewhat confused by the concept of wealth. Wealth and entrepreneurship are not necessarily related and, in fact, the tomes of history show that most of the world’s greatest pioneers were certainly not made great because of their money, but because of their entrepreneurial spirit. Real entrepreneurship is so much more than money can ever be. Here’s what it takes:

  1. Know what entrepreneurship is (and isn’t): By its more accurate definition, entrepreneurship is a process through which individuals identify opportunities, allocate resources and create value. Our simplistic and consumer-driven assumption is that the ‘value’ being created involves money, but this is most often not the case. Value can take many forms – and most often the ‘value’ that is created by true entrepreneurs is worth a lot more than money. The greatest entrepreneurial artists, politicians, musicians, investors and business owners in history became great because they added value to the world, not because they made lots of money. Seek first to add real value.
  2. Accept that money won’t make you happy: I’ve covered this topic in depth, and if you’re still not convinced that money can’t make you happy, then read “How much is enough?” again. If you’re chasing money, you probably won’t become an entrepreneur in its purest form. You may be rich. But probably entirely forgettable.
  3. Offer something that nobody else can: I love the simplicity behind the overriding success of Walmart whose founder, Sam Walton, dared to offer something that no other retailer was prepared to do – he kept his store open later than any other shop. Nothing elaborate, nothing difficult, nothing unimaginable for the average person – but something that nobody else did! And herein lies two essential ingredients of true entrepreneurship – (a) provide something that no one else provides and (b) keep it simple.
  4. Be persistent: It’s so easy to flip through the history books and admire the fairy-tale-like success stories of the entrepreneurial elite. The reality, though, is that very few (if any) of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs ever achieved success the first time round. Personally, I find some of the failure stories more riveting than the success stories because of the wealth of human emotion, passion, energy and determination that exists in their stories of struggle and overcoming adversity. Can you believe that Harland Sanders (yes, Colonel Sanders of KFC)) received 1 009 rejection letters from restaurants who declined the opportunity to sell his fried chicken. Persistence pays.
  5. Put God first: Key to Mary Kay Ash’s success was encouraging her employees  to prioritise their lives by putting God first, family second and work third. And what a success Mary Kay Cosmetics Inc. turned out to be. Make God your CEO.
  6. Find the gap: In many instances – persistence and hard-work aside – would-be entrepreneurs eventually find success by pin-pointing a significant (and sometimes glaringly obvious) gap in the market and having the courage to hedge their bets on that one exposed gap. A case in point is Michael Dell who, in 1984, realised that the only problem with the personal computer becoming a must-have home accessory is that most students couldn’t afford one. Enter the more affordable, good quality Dell computer, and the rest is entrepreneurial history. Once again, the nature of his success is underpinned by the sheer simplicity of the product. He didn’t set out to invent a hands-free, foot-operated, deodorised toilet-seat lifter – just an affordable personal computer for the average university student. Almost makes you want to go ‘duh’.
  7. Grow leaders: If you want to grow success in your business (whatever its nature) you need to surround yourself with leaders. In my opinion, the most effective example of growing a leadership team through entrepreneurship is that of Jesus Christ who turned 12 ever-so-average men into the most powerful leadership team the world has ever seen. He also spearheaded the concept of  ‘servant leadership’ which is the acknowledged blueprint for effective corporate leadership the world over.
  8. Ignore the negative people: In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Whatever you do, you need courage. Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising that tempt you to believe your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires some of the same courage that a soldier needs. Peace has its victories, but it takes brave men and women to win them.” Stay away from those who try to discourage you from following your dreams.
  9. Accept failure as part of the process: Don’t be misled into thinking that even the greatest entrepreneurs never suffered failure, hardship or adversary. In fact, some of them failed more times than most people would have the capacity to try in the first place. When Thomas Edison was interviewed by a young reporter who boldly asked Mr. Edison if he felt like a failure and if he thought he should just give up by now. Perplexed, Edison replied, “Young man, why would I feel like a failure? And why would I ever give up? I now know definitively over 9 000 ways that an electric light bulb will not work. Success is almost in my grasp.” And shortly after that, and over 10 000 attempts, Edison invented the light bulb.
  10. Do it yourself: When qualified engineer, Soichiro Honda, was rejected for employment by a large number of companies (including Toyota), he ended up in his garage making scooters which he then sold to his friends. He eventually started his own business – the vehicle giant, Honda – which is probably something he would have done in the very beginning if he’d believed in himself. Don’t assume that you don’t have what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur. If you have what it takes, then do it yourself and don’t short-sell your passion and enthusiasm to make somebody else rich.
  11. Focus on your strengths: These words of Albert Einstein’s words should be broadcast to a greater audience (not excluding our education department): “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Focus on what you’re good at doing, and delegate everything else.
  12. Leave your past behind: If Oprah Winfrey could leave her rough and abusive childhood behind to climb the ladder of media success that she did, then anyone can – and that’s after she was fired from two presenting jobs and being told she wasn’t fit for television! Leave your past behind you. It has no place in a successful, entrepreneurial future.
  13. Leave a legacy: Can you believe that Vincent van Gogh only sold one picture during his lifetime – and that was to a friend who felt sorry for him? He painted because he loved painting, not because he loved money. And while he didn’t make any money during his own lifetime, he worked hard enough to leave a legacy of over 800 of the world’s most treasured art.
  14. Have someone who believes in you: If it weren’t for his wife, Stephen King wouldn’t have achieved the literary success he enjoys today. Tired of being rejected, he shoved his manuscript into the rubbish bin and called it quits. His wife convinced him to submit his manuscript one more time and, thanks to her unwavering faith in his ability to write, he is now one of the world’s most famous thriller writers. Find someone who believes – really believes – in you.
  15. Accept that your teachers don’t know everything: Young Beethoven wasn’t a favourite of his teachers, largely because he spent more time composing his own musical pieces than doing his homework. After being ignored by his teachers (who told him he was hopeless) he went on to write some of the world’s greatest symphonies, five of them while he was stone deaf. Can you imagine if he’d listened to his teachers?
  16. Have fun: Fun is undoubtedly the magic ingredient that makes entrepreneurship effervescent. As Richard Branson (the master of entrepreneurial fun) once said, “A business has to be involving, it has to be fun, and it has to exercise your create instincts”. If it’s not fun, you’re doing it wrong.
  17. Work hard: This is probably one of the most used but least understood pieces of advice ever uttered. Here’s a hint: ‘hard work’ and ‘eight-hour day’ are completely and utterly unrelated. What often appears to the average nine-to-five worker as sheer genius is actually human sweat, blood and tears in oh-so-majestic disguise. Michelangelo once admitted, “If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful after all”.
  18. Stand for something: It’s an absolute truth that if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. No matter what your trade, art, business, sport or passion is, let people know what it is you stand for. Be clear about what you believe in and share your vision with everyone. There are no truly great men or women who fell into the category of ‘fence-sitter’. As Jim Hightower once said, “There’s nothing in the middle of the road other than yellow stripes and dead Armadillos”.
  19. Do what you’re passionate about: This may sound simplistically obvious, but so many people were raised with the belief that their passion cannot be their career. The spirit of entrepreneurship was created by men and women who out-rightly refused to accept that they could not make a success from doing what they loved best.
  20. Give back: An entrepreneur in her own right, Audrey Hepburn understood that true entrepreneurship is about giving back to those less fortunate that oneself. This in-bred belief led her to announce later on in her career, “As you grow older, you’ll discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself and the other for helping others”. Give, give and then give some more.

We know that not all ideas achieve success, that not all artists achieve fame and that not all investors make millions. But we do have a list of essential ingredients that, when brought together with the indelible spirit of true entrepreneurship, can give wings to any dream infused with enough human passion and make it take flight.

Have a blessed day!


Let's celebrate the world's true entrepreneurs - from left to right, Beethoven, Michelangelo, Oprah Winfrey, Audrey Hepburn and Michael Dell.

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