The humble entrepreneur

I’m lucky to frequently meet with entrepreneurs as part of my job. Like many who work in the entrepreneurial space, I spend as much time getting a feel for the team as I do considering their idea.

I recently met with an entrepreneur who impressed me with his humble attitude. He didn’t try to convince me that he knew everything about his customers, or that he knew the industry better than anyone else — instead, we had an engaging discussion about his key assumptions and how he would like to try to validate them in the market.

That great discussion not only gave me confidence in the entrepreneur and made me interested in working with him, it also got me thinking about what traits I look for when considering working with an entrepreneur. Like many investors and partners in the entrepreneurial space, I spend as much time getting a feel for the team as I do understanding their idea and assessing its potential. Here are some of the traits that turn me on, and some that send me running as fast as I can in the other direction.

Traits that get me excited

Knowing you don’t know much, even if you’ve successfully launched companies before. It’s ok to not know much, but it’s not ok to think you can take a “rinse and repeat” attitude towards a startup. Every startup is its own adventure — that’s why startups are so fun and challenging! Startup experience is incredibly valuable, but only if you learned from the process so you can take those lessons and apply them to the new startup.

Having a learning process that starts with curiosity, proceeds through inquiry, and ends with the excitement of discovery. You should enjoy the learning that comes with every startup. If you don’t, it’s probably time to start working for someone else.

Understanding that an idea alone, without execution, is worth nothing. People everywhere have ideas for products and services. Very few of them ever go beyond just talking about their idea. Even fewer build a business model around it. It’s not the idea that makes a great entrepreneur, it’s the ability to take that idea, put a business model around it, and successfully take it to market.

A keen interest in learning about your customers so you can better serve their needs. You’re not selling an idea, you’re selling a solution to some customer need. You can’t do that if you don’t understand your customers. And you can’t understand your customers without talking to them.

Being open to advice and alternative approaches, not only from investors but from other members of the team. The key is working together to solve problems, not having all the answers. If you think you have all the answers you’re probably only asking obvious questions.

Traits that send me running

Not having well thought-out hypotheses that you want to test in the market. Any launch is filled with assumptions about your customers. If you aren’t thinking through those assumptions and figuring out a way to test them, you’re going to get yourself into trouble.

Thinking you know more about your customers’ needs than they do. What you know is irrelevant to your customers — they want to know what you can do for them. You could have a great solution to some problem, but if they don’t have that problem, or they’re not willing to pay to have it solved for them, you’re destined for failure.

Acting like everyone is lucky to work with you. Even if you’ve launched a dozen successful companies, you haven’t earned the right to be arrogant.

Trying too hard to prove yourself. You need to prove yourself over time through your actions and leadership. If you are trying too hard to prove all of that, it just tells me you’re trying to fake it into existence. I’d much rather talk with someone who has a list of traits they want to continue improving than someone who has a list of things they think they are amazing at. Don’t downplay your strengths, but neither should you have to highlight them. If they truly are strengths, they will come out on their own.

It’s all about being humble

What this all comes down to is being humble. I’m not saying you should pretend to know nothing. Quite the contrary, you should just be yourself and see if the investors or potential partners you are talking with would be a good fit. If both sides just take a humble approach to each other, and the market, their relationship will be much smoother. They’ll also make their customers happier because real needs will be addressed.

So go be a humble entrepreneur, build a team that couldn’t imagine working with any other group of people, and create great stuff that your customers love. Accolades may, or may not, follow. Whether they do or not, at least you will have built something of value. That’s something to be proud of.

Are their additional traits you think are missing from this list? Or maybe you don’t think entrepreneurs should be humble at all. Let us know what you think! And while you’re doing that, why don’t you sign up for email updates so you don’t miss future posts.

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