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Best Way to Achieve Greatness

Few aspiring entrepreneurs actually get a new venture off the ground. Even fewer go on to be great. Here's why--and how to buck the trend.
Breakthrough Entrepreneurship cover jacket

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The following is an adapted excerpt from the book Breakthrough Entrepreneurship, now available in paperback.

If past experience is a guide, most of us will never actually try to get a new venture off the ground. What holds us back? Why don't we strive and achieve greatness? Most important, how will you buck the trend?

We've mentioned a few times the experiences of co-author Jon Burgstone, whose first entrepreneurial success came after he teamed up with a business school classmate named Asif Satchu. Together, Burgstone and Satchu started a company that they called SupplierMarket, which became the first Internet marketplace for custom-made manufactured parts. Neither Burgstone nor Satchu came from great wealth. They weren't the sons of world-class entrepreneurs. They had no greater advantages than most of their peers. So how did they convince themselves that they deserved to achieve outsized success?

The answer is great (and perhaps even absurdly unrealistic) expectations of themselves and those around them. There is one moment in particular that Burgstone talks about, when he had to reinforce his expanded expectations to fill the field he was playing on. Just a few months into their venture, he and Satchu had the chance to seek investment from Sequoia Capital, a renowned firm that had previously invested in companies including Atari, Apple, Cisco Systems, Electronic Arts, and Oracle. Though Burgstone and Satchu had celebrated many short-term wins in their company's short history, pitching Sequoia meant they were suddenly thrust into a big game in the major leagues.

As Burgstone sat in the conference room waiting for the investor meeting to begin, he realized that Sequoia rarely seemed to invest in things that don't make money. The meeting table was old and chipped. The walls were decorated with free posters bearing the logos of the firm's biggest successes. He wondered about the source of the vaguely musty odor he smelled.

Suddenly it hit him: The beat-up old chairs they were sitting in? They were likely the same ones Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak sat in when they first came to Sequoia. The 1970s-era table?  It might well have been the one where Larry Ellison sat when he came to raise money for Oracle.

Burgstone's heart raced faster. He felt pangs of doubt. Who did he think he was? He was just 18 months removed from being a twentysomething engineer at Ford. His company was still an unproven idea. He and Satchu hadn't paid themselves a penny in salary. There wasn't even a website yet at suppliermarket.com.

Burgstone heard the voice of reason in the back of his mind: What gives you the right even to aspire to this?

He and Satchu exchanged silent looks. Did they really think they were going to follow in the footsteps of people like Jobs and Ellison? Burgstone's palms sweated. He heard the firm's partners as they approached in the hallway.

What makes it so hard to believe?

An entrepreneur needs to solve customer pain, offer a compelling value proposition, sell, build, lead, and pursue a balanced life--but he also has to believe. He has to embrace the attitude of entrepreneurial inevitability that we explained back at the start of this journey.

For all our talk about creative destruction, entrepreneurship often doesn't intuitively feel sensible on an individual level. Setting out on your own is the exact opposite of what most people will advise you to do. It's not reasonable to think that you can do what most don't. And yet without smart, ambitious, unreasonable people who are willing to take those leaps, society sees little progress.

At the end of the day, you either jump or you don't. That said, there are at least four things that you can do to make it easier to learn to have faith.

Train yourself to expect outsized outcomes.

An entrepreneur must be at least somewhat subversive. He must train himself to believe that he is entitled to greatness. It's ironic. Just about every human being who has ever walked the planet in fact does have the right to expect great outcomes but most don't ever do so, simply because they don't believe they truly can. Those who do demand more, who expect greatness, who exhibit audacity--coupled with genuine insights and systematic planning--win. It's always the outsider. It's always the entrepreneur.

Learn to manage your fear.

Fear holds us back, but most often we're afraid of things that don't make logical sense. So again, you have to train yourself to overcome them. Modern psychology teaches that the most effective way to overcome trepidation is to expose yourself gradually to the object of your dread. If fears are irrational, exposing them carefully for what they are can make them less potent.

Find external validation.

Most of your drive as an entrepreneur has to come from inside, but you can't do it alone. It doesn't take much sometimes--just a few early customer orders or sincere encouragement from people whose opinions you respect can be enough steel for your spine. So, take steps ahead of time so you'll know these kinds of people when their vote of confidence can make the difference.

Follow the framework.

We want you to believe--but only in things that are real. Everything in Breakthrough Entrepreneurship is intended to teach you how to reject a thousand marginal ideas in favor of the best ones, and then maximize your chances of success with them. Testing and obtaining maximum information for minimum costs are absolute prerequisites to developing faith in your new venture.

When Burgstone sat in the Sequoia Capital conference room with his palms sweaty, what restored his expectations? It was the knowledge that he and Satchu had prepared themselves flawlessly to be in that room. They'd brainstormed a great idea. They'd tested it thoroughly. They understood their value proposition, and they had constantly sought to enhance it. They'd recruited key stakeholders and hired some of the best possible people. They'd followed every step to obtain credibility, and they'd already begun leading in an insightful, assertive style.

In short, they followed a well-thought out, replicable process. And it worked.

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Aug 2, 2012

JON BURGSTONE | Columnist | Professor, UC Berkeley

Jon Burgstone was co-founder of SupplierMarket, acquired by Ariba for $1.1B. He now teaches at Berkeley, where he helped launch the Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology. He is co-author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship.

BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist

Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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