Many people see entrepreneurship as the new American Dream. The most successful entrepreneurs are celebrated for their ingenuity and passion, and technology has made it easier than ever for ambitious people to start a business at any age and from anywhere.
The interest in entrepreneurship leads many to ask a key question—what personal characteristics are the true measure of a successful entrepreneur? It isn’t difficult to find articles detailing the many traits a startup founder needs to succeed, though there’s never been a true consensus among op-ed writers on the subject.
However, in May 2019, a group of three Swedish research institutions and startup incubators collaborated to publish a study called Project Dali. The researchers evaluated a small sample of highly successful entrepreneurs to determine what character traits they all shared. While Project Dali researchers noted that the sample should be larger in order to make a “reliable, quantitative analysis of the collected data,” they also found that “when carrying out statistical analysis…there are correlations.” You can read the full report, but below is a brief summary of the most common traits of successful entrepreneurs, according to the study.
The data showed that highly successful entrepreneurs often demonstrate a strong sense of self-awareness. In this case, self-awareness refers to a person’s understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses. This is an important trait for founders because the success of a business is dependent on the founder’s ability to create a well-rounded team. A self-aware founder will seek to hire people who have the skills they lack. By the same turn, self-awareness tends to prevent entrepreneurs from shying away from their own talents. They aren’t afraid to leverage their strengths to the fullest capacity.
The ability to communicate effectively means maintaining well-developed abilities in writing, speaking, and listening. Strong writing allows entrepreneurs to connect with and persuade the people they need to grow their business. Speaking is similarly critical for telling the company’s story, explaining how it came to be and why it deserves the attention of investors, partners, and clients. Good speaking skills are also necessary for leading people and forming teams.
While many people may not automatically consider listening to be a key communication skill, it could be considered the most important of the three. An entrepreneur who actively listens hears the perspective of customers, employees, and mentors. This allows them to understand others’ perspectives on their business and make changes that increase efficiency, appeal, and growth.
The Dali Project reveals that successful entrepreneurs may “have a greater need for internal and external experience and often generate new ideas.” It also states that they “look for activities that allow for testing new ways of thinking or unconventional ideas.”
This trait is an essential one for founders. Without ingenuity, there would likely be no innovative idea to build a company upon. Beyond the ability to come up with a great idea for a business, this trait also allows an entrepreneur to creatively use limited resources and launch a company with less support than most people would believe possible.
Big picture thinking
While the study defined this quality as the ability to maintain a “holistic perspective,” the term generally refers to the capacity of successful entrepreneurs to transcend the small, messy details and focus on the big picture. They don’t get bogged down in all the annoying but ultimately inconsequential issues that can slow them down.
Big picture thinking gives entrepreneurs vision, and vision is what drives people forward when the obstacles standing in the way of large-scale success seem insurmountable. Vision provides inspiration and direction that keeps entrepreneurs working toward a goal, even as the path to success turns in unexpected directions. Successful entrepreneurs don’t let doubt stop their momentum, and the best defense against doubt is to envision the whole journey of building a business, rather than focusing solely on one checkpoint along the path to success at a time.
While the Dali Project does not specifically use the word, “grit” encompasses a group of traits the study identified in entrepreneurs: endurance, flexibility, and improvement in performance over time. According to psychologist Dr. Angela Duckworth, the psychologist who elevated the public discussion about the importance of grit, this trait can be defined as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”
Grit is arguably the most important trait that an entrepreneur can have. Without it, founders may lack the stamina to endure the long hours, difficult decisions, small failures, and personal sacrifices that are all too often necessary to launch a startup. Grit means having a deep belief in the value of one’s business and the endurance and flexibility to persevere against the odds. Grit pushes entrepreneurs to work harder and improve when they experience failure, allowing them to develop their companies into the kind of enterprise that can be truly successful.