You’re a business owner, but are you entrepreneurial?

6 min read ·


Gregg Fairbrothers teaches Dartmouth business students to be entrepreneurial.

How can a business owner be more entrepreneurial? That's one of the questions Gregg Fairbrothers tackles in his book From Idea to Success: The Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network Guide for Startups. Fairbrothers managed and started oil and gas exploration and production companies on three continents before switching gears to teach entrepreneurship as an adjunct professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business. He wrote Idea to Success with Tess Winter last year to walk readers through the process of launching a new company, product, or service from concept to business. Now he pens the Ideas to Success column for Forbes with Catalina Gorla to further explore ideas about what makes a startup successful.

This week, Yahoo Small Business Advisor spoke with Fairbrothers about small business owners and entrepreneurs, which are not necessarily two terms with the same meaning.

YSBA: Not all small business people feel that the term "entrepreneur" applies to them. Do you consider anyone who has taken the initiative to start and sustain their own business to be an "entrepreneur," or are there sole proprietors or Mom & Pop shops that just don't fall into that category?

Fairbrothers: Definitions are important. People talk past each other all the time using the same word thinking they mean the same thing but hearing entirely different things. This word — entrepreneur — is one of those. We didn't try to define what an entrepreneur is in our book. Instead, we dodged that by asking, "What is entrepreneurial?" It's much easier to look at a given context or person or question and ask, "Is it addressing those characteristics?" as opposed to this garbage basket term, "entrepreneur."

I know people running sole proprietorships or small businesses who seem not to have an entrepreneurial bone in their body. It's just a small business. In fact, I often wonder if the size of a business doesn't reflect the absence of entrepreneurial aptitude. On the other hand I've met some incredibly entrepreneurial people in large companies, in what you would ordinarily think of as a bureaucratic setting.

So, I think it's better to shift the focus by asking, "Who is being entrepreneurial in trying to add value by being opportunistic and innovative and getting things done with resources they don't control?" It's the belief of my current co-columnist at Forbes and me that this is where the big value creation happens.

There is a quote early in your book: "The tragedy in life lies in having no goal." Would you elaborate on that as it applies to entrepreneurs? Have you seen entrepreneurs fail for lack of a concrete goal?

It's really a subset of a conversation I have frequently with students. They come in asking, "What should I do for a career? I don't know what I want to do in life, how should I start?"

It's such a common occurrence and the antidote is pretty much universal: It's important for people to set out with an end in mind. And I chose that indefinite article carefully, and don't paraphrase Steven Covey, who says, "successful people set out with the end in mind." The problem there is that often people are not right about the end and they change their mind.

But the most dangerous thing is starting out without any end in mind. I know a lot of people who do that. They only worry about where to start. They get on a journey and then they realize it's not taking them where they want to go. And they often realize, "Boy, if I had thought about this before I started I would have realized this is not going to take me where I want to end up." Or "I haven't thought about where I want to end up, I'm just drifting."

There's a regimen you should go through in terms of validation, market research, talking to customers, building a plan. I have a hard time understanding how someone can do an effective job of that if they don't have some working idea or hypothesis of what this objective looks like and some way of framing the questions and testing them. That happens a lot, but I don't think it's a very effective way of doing it.

You've written about the difference between the "administrative personality" and the "entrepreneurial personality." Would entrepreneurial people, by definition, be much happier if they could break out of an administrative culture and be an entrepreneur?

I can speak from firsthand experience. I was one of those people, and I wouldn't have known to use that language back then. I worked in a big oil company, Texaco, and was very frustrated. I think big companies are full of people with entrepreneurial aptitude because the traits that we talk about a lot of people possess at least quite a bit and most people have more than a little.

I think a great deal of life takes entrepreneurial personalities—especially in modern economies where so many people work for somebody else—and it does not provide an environment that gives them full opportunity to pursue entrepreneurial ideas.

That said, organizations are more powerful than individuals and therefore we have to make compromises. At Sampson International, Sampson Canada, and Sampson-Russia, the three companies I started in 1989, we used to look for those people. It was one of the key hiring criteria as I was interviewing people. We wanted to find the ones who were saying things—especially inarticulately so it was really from the heart—like, "I'm frustrated where I am. I just want to have impact. I cannot do enough of the things that I think add value." We would turn those people loose and usually have very good luck with that.

But do I think that entrepreneurial people would be happier in a more entrepreneur friendly environment? The answer that immediately leaps to mind is, the only thing we can say with confidence [about an entrepreneurial person leaving an administrative environment] is that one less pretext for being unhappy has been removed.

The other thing we did in hiring at Sampson was listen for the complaints. Often they revolved around the business of, "I can't be myself. I can't be entrepreneurial. I can't pursue my ideas." We knew from experience that people often bring their misery with them. And many of the same things they were saying about their former employer, they're going to be saying about us in six months.

What makes people happy is probably irrelevant to the question of entrepreneurship and working in companies. I believe people think about happiness independent of their vocation.

We're very interested in success and social value and helping people think about the fact that what they're working on should have some line of sight to social value. What I find is that people, even more than saying, "I want to be happy," want to be able to be able to say, "I'm doing something that is meaningful." And if you scratch below the surface, what they're saying is that they want to do something that creates social value. When people are on that track they'll put up with all kinds of obstacles and misery and seem to be happier.

Short of taking a course at Dartmouth, what advice do you have for people who would like to learn how to be more entrepreneurial? Where could they go to get schooled in these concepts?

Opportunities to learn along those dimensions are everywhere. That's one of the reasons we wrote that book. At Tuck and at Dartmouth we have long focused on the whole concept of helping people move in the direction of being more entrepreneurial. The book to a large extent just tries to set context to get people in the game of doing that.

In the end, most of that learning is just experiential learning. Get out there and do it. We provided a lot of background, wrote about the things that can get you in trouble, basic stuff you need to know.

But often, even students who I know for a fact have read that book carefully, come in and we start talking about something they're working on their project, and it's clear they completely had not heard something they read there that was totally relevant to the question they're asking. And that's because it wasn't contextual. Learning is contextual and it's experiential. Conversely, when they have been exposed to a problem at the company they're working on, and then find the answer either in a book or anywhere else, they never forget it.

For many people, the answer to your question is: Find something you're passionate about, you believe in, that you're excited about. Go start working on it and learn as you go. Be willing to have that first startup just be a learning kit. Don't expect to be an instant success. What you will learn is invaluable into the indefinite future.

For more resources and information for startup entrepreneurs see Gregg Fairbrothers' website,