Confidence – The Stuff Entrepreneurs Are Made Of

This article was originally written for and published on Upmarket – the US-based online business magazine at http://upmarket.squidoo.com/2012/04/03/confidence-the-stuff-entrepreneurs-are-made-of/

Over the past three years I’ve worked with thousands of start-ups across the UK, and have come to the conclusion that confidence is the number one ingredient that entrepreneurs need if they are to succeed in business.

Although funding (or the lack of it) is regularly cited as a barrier to starting a business, it’s really the mindset and attitude of the founder that is more important than anything else. Let me qualify this statement.

Working for one of the UK’s longest running youth enterprise programmes means I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many hundreds of entrepreneurs at various stages in their career including some of the most successful business people in the country. They all share a common trait with each other which is an unshakeable self-belief in what they are doing and the path they have chosen.

There’s a long-running argument in the business world about whether entrepreneurs are born or made but I’m now a firm believer in the latter. Confidence is born out of experience and so the more varied experiences you are exposed to the more confident you will become. In particular, it appears that if someone experiences a positive outcome to their entrepreneurial activities early on in life (no matter how small), they are highly likely to repeat this behaviour again. It’s almost like a switch in their brain is flicked and they start to see things differently to everyone else around them.

It sounds like a cliché, but I’ve lost count of the number of entrepreneurs who talk fondly about their time washing cars as a kid or selling sweets in the playground which gave them an early taste for business and set them on the entrepreneurial path. Lord Sugar (the UK equivalent of Donald Trump on our version of The Apprentice) caused controversy recently by saying that ‘If parents don’t send their kids out to make money by the age of 13, they’ll become lazy dreamers!’ He may have a point but I don’t think it’s ever too late to train yourself to think in a more entrepreneurial way.

In my own life, my main focus at school and university was always on ‘getting good grades’ (whilst having fun along the way) which would eventually lead to ‘a good job’ with ‘a good company’. I’ve been fortunate to work for some fantastic companies over the years but I’ve also had some setbacks too – including being made redundant and out of work for almost a year in 2001 which took a long while for my career (and finances) to recover from. However, I actually see this as a positive period as it allowed me to spend more time at home with my family, reflect on what I really wanted to do with my life and pursue a career in the music industry for the next few years before pivoting again into the not-for-profit sector where I have been ever since.

Each new role and the experiences they brought have made me stronger and more confident in my own abilities to learn new skills and adapt to previously unknown situations. It’s given me a much broader perspective on life and in work which means I am always eager to learn and quick to adopt new ideas. My personal motto is ‘Stay Curious’ as I feel you can never stop learning and growing as a person which is what Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha mean by living your life in ‘Permanent Beta’ in their new book The Start-Up Of You. This attitude and confidence, plus the fact I am working with start-ups every day means I have become more entrepreneurial in my role and can see opportunities for new projects and collaboration everywhere I look.

But what if you didn’t catch the entrepreneurial bug as a kid or jour job doesn’t inspire you to think like an entrepreneur? What can you do to build up your confidence and train yourself to be an entrepreneur (or intrapreneur)?

Some ideas you could try:

  • Read widely – the fact you are here suggests you are curious about personal and professional development but there are many great websites and blogs out there as well as Upmarket. I recommend not just reading online though. It’s still good to get away from your device and I still get a lot of inspiration from reading a physical newspaper, magazine or book. If you want to open your mind, I recommend reading any of The Domino Project books, preferably starting with Poke The Box by Seth Godin.
  • Talk to people – although we’re living an increasingly virtual world, you must never stop meeting and talking to people face to face. Too many problems at work are caused by poor communication within teams so perhaps you could try a No Email Day so you can build up greater rapport with your colleagues, even if it’s just getting away from your desk for a coffee in another part of the office. Human beings are inherently social and real conversations ebb and flow and meander into all kinds of interesting directions which can result in fantastic innovation if you let them.
  • Network – people always talk about the importance of networking but not many people do it right. There are so many ways to network these days, both online and offline but it’s important to try and do it with a goal in mind. Remember though, networking without a purpose is just socialising!
  • Create opportunities – why not start your own informal networking events for similar, like-minded people with a shared interest to gather? The trick here is to keep the agenda loose rather than define a structured event and let the events evolve and form around the people who attend. For example, in June 2011 I started hosting informal, after work events for local developers, designers and start-ups in my city which now attract 50 people each week. The events are free to attend and the format is simply to have one or two speakers on a theme, followed by relaxed drinks in the bar next door (where the really interesting conversations happen)!
  • Enter Awards / Competitions – I’ve seen first-hand how even just a small amount of money or just the kudos of winning an award for their work can be a real boost to an entrepreneur. Time and again the feedback we receive for the start-up awards we give out is that although the (small) amount of cash was what attracted them to the competition in the first place, it was the confidence and validation that winning gave them that was the biggest benefit. More than money, awards can generate fantastic PR for your business and open doors to more opportunities down the line.
  • Scare yourself – the only way to grow and develop both personally and professionally is to try things that you previously couldn’t do. Fear is a completely normal and natural feeling to have if you are in a dangerous environment but is usually irrational and without substance. Even if things go wrong, the negative outcome of doing something is rarely as bad as you think it will be and unless you try you’ll never know if you can do it. A good example of this is public speaking. Most people are afraid of speaking in public but the more you do it the easier it gets. If this sounds like you, why not put yourself forward to speak at an event on a topic you are passionate about? The fear and nerves will make you try harder and once you’ve done it the fear will be gone forever. Follow the fear. If you’re afraid of something, that’s where you should go next!

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