Why Your Image of an Entrepreneur is Wrong
with Ethan Mollick
with guest Ethan Mollick #MakingBank S5E7
Perhaps your exposure to entrepreneurship began with a dog-walking business as a child, or maybe you got the bug after you’d worked in corporate America for ten years, we all come to this creative career path in unique ways. Whether you started at ten or at fifty, along the way, we all begin to form an image of what we, as entrepreneurs, should look like and can sometimes feel discouraged if we don’t fit into that box.
You might be thinking of the young, disheveled college dropout, who’s working all hours from his parents’ basement. We’ve seen the image before through films, books, and just mythology. You may feel that you aren’t going to be as successful as someone who started young, or someone who works insane hours. However, these factors don’t always necessitate success, in fact, the opposite may be true.
In a recent episode of the Making Bank podcast, guest Ethan Mollick breaks down entrepreneur stereotypes. An award-winning Wharton professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Ethan spent years studying, researching, and teaching thousands of entrepreneurs and their habits. He shares qualities of the entrepreneurial persona that aren’t true for most successful business owners, and how these ideas are actually harmful, and can deter you from success if you try to follow it. Keep reading to find out what those characteristics are.
The Entrepreneur’s Age
One of the first misconceptions about entrepreneurs is that you have to be young and unconventional to be successful. If you didn’t grow up starting businesses at the age of ten, that doesn’t mean you aren’t “meant” to be an entrepreneur. In other words, you don’t have to feel discouraged if you didn’t start early. Perhaps you worked in Corporate America for years before getting your idea to start a company in your forties or fifties. In fact, Ethan discovered that the “the census data for every startup, the average age for a founder is 42.” The average age of a founder who gets venture capital is also 42. Overall, it’s never too late to capitalize on a great idea.
So, if you’re reading this and you’re young, should you wait to start your company? While the average age of founders is 42, you should begin now. But why start now if you’re twenty years younger than that? Because starting now will help you later. Earlier businesses—especially ones that fail—can teach you what you need to know about founding the company that will eventually take off. That does not necessarily mean that your first business will fail, however, your first business will give you so much experience, no matter the outcome of the company. Either way, you will gain something from starting early. And if you’re founding your first business at middle age, you also have other life and career experience that you can draw from that that will help guide you.
Regardless, a great idea is a great idea, no matter your age. It’s up to you to execute on it.
The Entrepreneur’s Work Ethic
Another characteristic of the entrepreneur that Ethan’s research dismantles is the idea of a crazy work ethic. Ethan says that the image of the entrepreneur working all hours to materialize his or her company is not just wrong, but the inversion of the truth. While putting in the hours is necessary to grow your business, working 80 hours a week is not always the most effective way to get things done. Ethan encourages venture capitalists to stop “judging people based on the hours worked.” He believes that “that’s a really bad technique because not all hours are equally productive and it encourages people to burn out.”
In fact, Ethan says that lack of sleep is statistically the worst thing to do as an entrepreneur. One, when entrepreneurs are exhausted, it stunts their creativity. They also begin to get bad ideas that they can’t recognize are bad due to their fatigue. Lack of sleep also makes entrepreneurs more impulsive, meaning they are more likely to act on these bad ideas. As Ethan says, “if you’re chronically sleep deprived, you’re more likely to start a company, but it’s more likely to be a bad company.”
Even if you begin a company with a good idea while exhausted, you will develop a negative attitude. Your bad mood can percolate to the rest of the company, which will affect you and your team’s productivity. So, even if you do come up with a great idea while sleep deprived, your irritability will make “everybody cranky and then the idea of quality and the entire company plummets.”
Lastly, just getting a good night’s sleep allows you to recovery and destress on a daily basis. There are moments in your business career where you will have to grind harder, where sleep is difficult as you push through to meet a deadline or impress an investor. However, if you are entering those phases already exhausted, that sprint to the finish line will burn you out and your company can crumble as a result.
Relating to the concept of an 80-hour work week, another area important to the successful entrepreneur is a good work-life balance. Ethan has discovered that the image of the founders who ignores his or her family for the company does not always lead to prosperity. Ethan uncovered that entrepreneurs with families have a better time handling difficult phases. The family—or a close group of friends—can act as a buffer for some of the stress of founding a company, offering support in hard times, and encouraging a healthy mindset overall.
While these characteristics are just common patterns that Ethan has found in his research, they aren’t set rules. Focus on traits you have control over, such as generating a positive work-life balance, and let go of what you don’t. Overall, Ethan’s point is that the entrepreneur isn’t one “thing” per say. Successful entrepreneurs can be any way and come from anywhere.