The road to entrepreneurship is often a treacherous one filled with unexpected detours, roadblocks and dead ends. There are lots of sleepless nights, plans that don’t work out, funding that doesn’t come through and customers that never materialize. It can be so challenging to launch a business that it may make you wonder why anyone willingly sets out on such a path.
Despite those hardships, every year thousands of people embark on an entrepreneurial journey, determined to bring their vision to fruition and fill a need they see in society. They open brick-and-mortar businesses, launch tech startups, or turn an idea into a new product or service. With the right motivation, inspiration and game plan, you can be a successful entrepreneur, too.
What entrepreneurs do
An entrepreneur identifies a need that no existing business addresses and determines a solution for that need. Entrepreneurial activity includes developing and starting a new business and implementing a business marketing plan, often with the end goal of selling the company to turn a profit.
An entrepreneur who regularly launches new businesses, sells them and then starts new companies is a serial entrepreneur. Whether a business owner should be considered an entrepreneur often depends on whether they created the business, and other legalities. That said, any founder of a successful household-name business began as an entrepreneur.
If you want to become an entrepreneur yourself but you worry you don’t have the money for it, finances don’t have to stop you from achieving your career goals. Many entrepreneurs seek financing options that bypass traditional banks, like funding from angel investors that provide entrepreneurs with capital to cover startup costs (or, later, expansion costs). If you can demonstrate a high growth potential for your business, you can also turn to a venture capitalist, who offers capital in exchange for receiving equity in your company.
Examples of successful entrepreneurs
Many people whose names no one knew decades ago exemplify entrepreneurial success today. Here are just a few examples:
- Steve Jobs: The late tech leader started Apple in a garage and grew it into the dominant company it is today. Jobs even faltered partway through his career, leaving Apple for more than a decade before returning to the company and taking it to new heights
- Elon Musk: He founded SpaceX and has since become known for putting the billions of dollars his company has earned him toward some benevolent projects, including providing clean water to Flint, Michigan, and donating FDA-approved ventilators to hospitals fighting COVID-19.
- Bill Gates: The Microsoft co-founder has often been listed as the world’s wealthiest individual and has become an internationally renowned leader on pandemics and how to handle them. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, shared with his former wife, focuses on combating poverty, inequity and disease globally.
- Jeff Bezos: The founder and creator of Amazon.com originally started the enterprise as an online book retailer. The internet marketplace has since become one of the most valued companies in the world, selling nearly every product imaginable.
- Mark Zuckerberg: As a college student, he helped shape the future of social media by co-founding the social networking platform Facebook. Initially launched for only select college campuses, the service quickly expanded to the broader public. Its success turned Zuckerberg into one of the youngest self-made billionaires in America.
- Sara Blakely: She took $5,000 and turned it into a $1 billion company with an invention known today as Spanx. The idea was born out of Blakely’s frustration with the pantyhose she had to wear for prior jobs. She had no fashion experience but researched everything from patents to fabrics.
Many of the biggest businesses had humble beginnings and evolved into highly successful enterprises over time. Don’t be afraid to change your initial idea to fit shifts in your market.
The motivations of successful entrepreneurs
What motivates entrepreneurs to venture forth when so many others would run in the opposite direction? Though each person’s inspiration is nuanced and unique, many entrepreneurs are spurred by one or more of the following motivators:
- Autonomy: Entrepreneurs are people who want to be their own bosses, set their own goals, control their own progress and run their businesses how they see fit. They recognize that their businesses’ success or failure rests with them, but they don’t view this responsibility as a burden. Instead, it’s a marker of their freedom.
- Purpose: Many entrepreneurs have a clear vision of what they want to accomplish and will work tirelessly to make that happen. They genuinely believe they have a product or service that fills a void and are compelled by a single-minded commitment to keep pushing ahead. They hate stagnation and would rather fail while moving forward than languish in inactivity. [Check out the major reasons entrepreneurs fail by their second year.]
- Flexibility: Not everyone fits into the rigidity of traditional corporate culture. Entrepreneurs are often looking to free themselves from these constraints, find a better work-life balance, or work at times and in ways that may be unconventional. This doesn’t mean they’re working fewer hours – often, especially in the early stages of growing a business, they work longer and harder – but, rather, they’re working in a way that is instinctual for them.
- Financial success: Most entrepreneurs realize they aren’t going to be overnight billionaires, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in the potential to make a ton of money from a hugely successful business over which they have full control. Some want to establish a financial safety net for themselves and their families, while others are looking to make a huge profit by creating the next big thing.
- Legacy: Entrepreneurs are often guided by a desire to create something that outlasts them. Others want to develop a brand that has longevity and becomes an institution. Some want to pass on a source of income and security to their heirs. There are also entrepreneurs who hope to make a lasting impression on the world and leave behind an innovation that improves people’s lives in some tangible way.
See more reasons entrepreneurs start businesses and the traits that lead to entrepreneurial success.
Advice from successful entrepreneurs
If you’re contemplating whether to become an entrepreneur, first identify which of the above motivators serve as your guiding forces. Then, consider if you have the specific character traits and attributes that will enable you to thrive as an entrepreneur.
To help you determine if you’ve got what it takes, here’s what 25 company founders and business leaders told us about what they think makes a truly successful entrepreneur:
- “Entrepreneurship is at the core of the American dream. It’s about blazing new trails, about believing in yourself, your mission and inspiring others to join you in the journey. What sets [entrepreneurs] apart is the will, courage and sometimes recklessness to actually do it.” – Derek Hutson, managing partner at Morgan Creek Strategies
- “Entrepreneurship is a pursuit of a solution, a single relentless focus on solving a problem or doing something drastically different from the way it is done today. [It’s] aiming to do something better than it’s ever been done before and constantly chasing improvement.” – Blake Hutchison, CEO of Flippa
- “Entrepreneurship is … the constant hunger for making things better and the idea that you are never satisfied with how things are.” – Debbie Roxarzade, founder and CEO of Rachel’s Kitchen
- “At its core, [entrepreneurship] is a mindset – a way of thinking and acting. It is about imagining new ways to solve problems and create value. Fundamentally, entrepreneurship is about … the ability to recognize [and] methodically analyze [an] opportunity and, ultimately, to capture [its] value.” – Bruce Bachenheimer, clinical professor of management and executive director of the Entrepreneurship Lab at Pace University
- “The most successful entrepreneurs are the ones who possess grit. Grit is made up of persistence, passion and resilience. It’s the passion to achieve long-term goals, the courage to try again in the face of rejection, and the will to do something better than it has been done before. The most successful entrepreneurs tend to be gritty ones … They do not give up until they exceed their goals. When the going gets tough and they get knocked down, gritty entrepreneurs bounce right back up and try again.” – Deborah Sweeney, vice president and general manager of Deluxe Corp.
- “The ability to listen, whether it be to the opinions of customers or employees, is also integral to success. While … you must have the confidence to make your own choices, it is still incredibly important not to become detached from the people whose needs you are trying to meet.” – Tirath Kamdar, general manager of luxury at eBay
- “Being an entrepreneur is like heading into uncharted territory. It’s rarely obvious what to do next, and you have to rely on yourself a lot when you run into problems. There are many days when you feel like things will never work out and you’re operating at a loss for endless months. You have to be able to stomach the roller coaster of emotions that comes with striking out on your own.” – Amanda Austin, founder and president of Little Shop of Miniatures
- “To be a successful entrepreneur, you must have a passion for learning – from customers, employees and even competitors.” – James Bedal, president and CEO of Bare Metal Standard
- “Entrepreneurship is, fundamentally, the art and science of building profitable systems to help people in ways that other systems do not. The core competency of the entrepreneur is not business acumen or marketing ability but rather empathy – the ability to understand the feelings and needs of others.” – Logan Allec, CPA and owner of Money Done Right
- “Being a successful entrepreneur also means being a good leader. Leadership is the ability to bring people to a place where they want to follow you, not feel like they are forced to follow you. This takes investing in your team personally. They must know you’re not only going to hold them accountable and drive them to be better, but [you will] also look out for them when they are struggling. It’s not transactional; it’s a relationship.” – Steve Schwab, founder and CEO of Casago
- “Entrepreneurship is the ability to recognize the bigger picture, find where there’s an opportunity to make someone’s life better, design hypotheses around these opportunities and continually test your assumptions. It’s experimentation: Some experiments will work; many others will fail. It is not big exits, huge net worth or living a life of glamour. It’s hard work and persistence to leave the world a better place once your time here is done.” – Konrad Billetz, founding partner at Outliant
- “A key skill an entrepreneur must possess is self-awareness. An entrepreneur must know who they are and what they need. Self-awareness is the first step for an entrepreneur to build their team.” – Krystal Nelson, founder of I-Impakt Consulting
Family and friends are a key lifeline for entrepreneurs. Make sure you have a stable support system before embarking on a business venture.
- “[Entrepreneurs] have to be people-oriented. Your business will die without a good team to back you up. Study management techniques, learn from great leaders, [and] review where you’re succeeding and failing so you can help others improve. An entrepreneur has to be able to build a team who cares about its work, and to do that, you have to care about how you create your team.” – Jonathan Barnett, president and CEO of Oxi Fresh Carpet Cleaning
- “To be a successful entrepreneur, you need perseverance. Most successful businesspeople or entrepreneurs have never given up on their idea. When challenges arise, they have found innovative ways of overcoming them. You must be able to adapt to changing economic conditions, and innovate and embrace technological advances to keep your customers engaged. These things take determination and a strong focus on the end goal.” – Stacey Kehoe, founder and director of communications at Brandlective Communications
- “Entrepreneurship is the mindset that allows you to see opportunity everywhere. It could be a business idea, but it could also be seeing the possibilities in the people who can help you grow that business. This ability to see many options in every situation is critically important; there will be unending challenges that will test your hustle.” – Preeti Sriratana, co-founder of Sweeten
- “Entrepreneurs and business owners definitely need to get used to taking risks. … You have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Trying to grow a company or execute on an idea is difficult. It’s not always going to be roses and unicorns. At some point, you’re going to run into issues, lose customers and have financial constraints. It’s at this point you need to get back on the horse and take another risk, whether it’s in the form of a new product, new marketing campaign or a new customer recruitment strategy.” – Matthew Ross, co-founder and chief operating officer of Slumber Yard
- “Successful entrepreneurs look past [the] ‘quick buck’ and instead look at the bigger picture to ensure that each action made is going toward the overall goal of the business or concept, whether or not that means getting something in return at that moment.” – Allen Dikker, CEO of Galk Consulting
- “Being an entrepreneur is ingrained in one’s identity. [It] is the culmination of a certain set of characteristics: determination, creativity, the capacity to risk, leadership and enthusiasm.” – Eric Lupton, president of Life Saver Pool Fence Systems
- “Entrepreneurship is an unavoidable life calling pursued by those who are fortunate enough to take chances. [They are] optimistic enough to believe in themselves, aware enough to see problems around them, stubborn enough to keep going, and bold enough to act again and again. Entrepreneurship is not something you do because you have an idea. It’s about having the creativity to question, the strength to believe and the courage to move.” – Jordan Fliegel, managing director at Techstars
- “You may need to also be a bit of a contrarian. Sometimes it takes a person who thinks differently than the herd to start something new and defy the odds.” – Akshay Khanna, founder and CEO of CareClinic
- “Entrepreneurship is seeing an opportunity and gathering the resources to turn a possibility into a reality. It represents the freedom to envision something new and to make it happen. It includes risk, but it also includes the reward of creating a legacy.” – Maia Haag, co-founder and president of I See Me! Personalized Books and Gifts
- “An entrepreneur must be able to accept failure. Everyone thinks they can accept failure until they come face to face with failing at a major thing they have put their everything into. To be a successful entrepreneur, you have to be someone who is able to risk failure at the deepest personal levels.” – Steven Benson, founder and CEO of Badger Maps
- “[Entrepreneurs] must be able to pivot. If something isn’t working, keeping at it won’t make you successful. But changing your approach, changing your business model, changing your plans to make it work is the power of the pivot. You’re adaptable regardless of what’s thrown at you.” – Michael Maher, chief idea officer of Cartology
- “Entrepreneurship is about always moving forward: never stopping, never allowing self-doubt or fear to take over and believing wholeheartedly that even a wrong decision is better than no decision.” – Adam Sherwin, founder of Viakix
- “Entrepreneurs are the dreamers and the visionaries. Without them, the world stagnates and progress stops. Society needs entrepreneurs the same way the body needs air.” – Cynthia Kirkeby, founder of Seasonally Fresh
How to become an entrepreneur
There’s no single path to becoming a successful entrepreneur. A lot of it can come down to having the right skills, mindset and ideas at the right time to resonate with the public. However, there are a few things you can do to increase your chances of starting a thriving business.
- Find the right idea. Entrepreneurship isn’t just about finding a profitable idea; it’s about finding one you’re passionate about pursuing. Almost any industry has room for new entrepreneurs, and identifying the subject you care about most can motivate you to stay on course.
- Develop a plan for your business. It’s not enough to say you want to start a business; you also need a solid plan for how to do so. A business plan can help solidify the financial goals you’d like to reach. It can also tell you how to reach them while enticing potential investors to fund your venture.
- Determine your clientele. Not many businesses become successful without serving customers or clients. Most ventures won’t appeal to every member of the public equally, but you can gauge interest in your idea before opening your doors. The demographics of the people most interested in your business can help you make other decisions, like your store location and ad buys.
- Sell your idea. Even if your product or service has garnered interest among friends, family or online forums, that’s a small sample size. You need to get a sense of what the public thinks. Marketing your idea in the right places and highlighting what sets it apart from competitors can help draw people to your business. [Related article: What Is a Unique Selling Proposition?]
- Meet others in your field. There are most likely people in your industry whose expertise in certain areas can benefit your fledgling business. Proper networking can connect you to people from whom you can draw valuable knowledge or gain monetary support. It’s even worth following business Instagram accounts to learn from peers and experts.
The internet has made many resources available for people without college degrees to learn the necessary skills to run a business.
The value of entrepreneurship
Being a successful entrepreneur isn’t an easy path. It can often take far more hard work, ingenuity and perseverance than the typical 9-to-5 job and yet still not pan out in the long run. However, succeeding as an entrepreneur can be one of the most rewarding experiences, because you’re doing so on your own terms and affecting society at the same time. For many, those rewards are invaluable. There’s never a guarantee that an idea will succeed, but you’ll still see many people starting their own businesses anyway. After all, failure is just as uncertain.
Isaiah Atkins and Paula Fernandes contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.