Entrepreneur, Author, Professor, Global CEO

July 23, 2015

The Secret of Entrepreneurial Success: Make Someone Happy!

Try this bit of free association: Say what comes immediately to mind when you hear the word “entrepreneur?” I’m willing to wager that it’s something along the lines of the Silicon Valley model: the brilliant, innovative, aggressive, independent, and technically savvy young male disrupting an entire industry and building a multi-billion dollar enterprise overnight. These “hero entrepreneurs,” as I call them, garner extensive media attention and some have been extraordinarily successful, but they make up less than 1% of all successful entrepreneurs and less than 10% of all the economic activity generated by startups. Yet, that’s who most of us see as the essence of “entrepreneur.”

In any case, I doubt that “entrepreneur” conjures up any of the hundreds of thousands of people who start businesses each year, some of whom, through patience and hard work, build them into successful enterprises. These “bedrock founders,” as I call them, don’t make the headlines, they don’t make billions overnight, and they don’t make for great myths. But they do make people happy.

That’s the secret of their success. It’s not an algorithm, a killer app, or network effects. It’s not something they learned in school and it’s not innate genius. It’s their willingness to dedicate their working lives to making other people happy.

I’ve spent the past several years talking to many of these bedrock founders, watching them at work, getting to know them, and discussing their motivations and their aspirations. Most of them started with next to nothing and created enterprises that made countless people happy and better off. These enterprises range from small to large, slow-growing to fast-growing, tech to non-tech, for profit and not for profit. But all of these endeavors have one thing in common: their founders understand the link between entrepreneurial success and providing happiness.

Research bears them out. Over the past 25 years, psychologists, sociologists, economists, and business academics, often working independently, have produced compelling research on the connections between motivation, entrepreneurship, and happiness. But because researchers in different fields use different terms and different research methods, it has taken some time for us to synthesize this varied work. Now, however, making these linkages has enabled us to achieve simple but powerful insights into the who, what, where, when, and how of becoming a successful entrepreneur.

That’s great news for the overwhelming majority of would-be entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurial success is not nearly as complicated or inaccessible as it is sometimes made out to be. While some businesses need to be complex and all businesses become more complex as they grow, the principles of entrepreneurship are simple and straightforward. You do not need to be brilliant and technically savvy to be a successful entrepreneur. The single most important factor in figuring out if you should be an entrepreneur is how badly you want to make other people happy.

Understanding the links between happiness and entrepreneurial success also yields rich insights into what entrepreneurs can do to deliver that happiness. Just as important, these insights enable us to realize which instincts of ours we can trust in making our entrepreneurial decisions – after all most of us have a good sense of how we make other people happy.

I’m not suggesting some kind of Pollyannaish, power-of-positive-thinking approach to starting a business. In fact, my purpose in getting close to some bedrock founders recently is to eventually bring their stories to a broader public, connect those stories with recent research, and help would-be entrepreneurs better understand themselves and what they really need to know to grow a business. Along with the desire and ability to make other people happy, they will also need some essential leadership skills; they must master the four phases of a successful startup, and they must avoid the most common fatal mistakes that unsuccessful entrepreneurs make.

But none of these things involve technological savvy, access to capital, or advanced education. You don’t have to be brilliant, innovative, male, or twenty-something. And because entrepreneurial success rests on your ability to make others happy rather than on any specific idea, you are not in a winner-take-all race. You can take the time to learn what you really need to know.

I’m also not suggesting that all happiness flows from the efforts of entrepreneurs. The degree and kind of happiness that we feel at any given moment may have interpersonal, aesthetic, religious, or other roots. But much happiness that we experience – some of it highly transient in the course of our daily lives, some of it longer term – originated with an entrepreneur. So the next time you do a little free association with “entrepreneur,” think about those moments, the people who originally made them possible, and why they made you happy. You’ll be well on your way to understanding the heart of entrepreneurship.

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