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7 Things That Set Real Entrepreneurs Apart

Just because you wear a black turtleneck, jeans, and sneakers doesn't make you Steve Jobs. This is what makes an entrepreneur.
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A VC whose name escapes me once said, "There are entrepreneurs and there are Entrepreneurs!"

I'm not exactly sure what he meant by that, but I'll tell you what I think. I think the term "entrepreneur" has become more than a little overused, watered down, diluted.

That shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. This is supposed to be the era of the entrepreneur. Practically everyone has a business, a brand, a blog. Everybody's a CEO of one. And yet, relatively few actually embody the true meaning of the word "entrepreneur." So what does it mean?

To me, it means assuming significant personal risk in forming and running a business.

And of those real entrepreneurs, few manage to create a profitable, growing enterprise that delivers unique products, meaningful employment, and shareholder value. What makes those Entrepreneurs unique? What sets them apart from the pack? That's a very challenging question. And the answer may surprise you.

They defy characterization. You really have to get to know these people, work with them for years, maybe even get inside their heads a bit, to understand what they're really all about. Here's one thing I know for sure. They're each one of a kind. The real deal. They don't try to be unique. They just are. And they don't try to be like someone else, either. They know that wearing a black mock turtleneck, jeans, and sneakers doesn't make you Steve Jobs.

Money means little to them. It's sort of ironic how little money matters to those who are true entrepreneurs at heart. After all, the really successful ones end up with so much of it. For them, money is just a means to an end. And since money's not a distraction or a temptation, they can truly focus on what really counts: doing what drives them, what they're passionate about. Challenging themselves, proving it can be done. Building a company, wealth and all that are secondary.

They're on a mission from God. No, they're not really. But when they speak about their vision or idea, you'd swear they've been possessed by some sort of demon that, instead of inciting chaos and mischief, inspires innovation and creation. There's definitely an aspect of fanaticism in their zeal for whatever has captured their imagination. That could be because they truly think they're special or need to prove something. Interestingly, that aspect can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

They don't take risks for the sake of taking risks. Just as they don't set out to make money, true entrepreneurs don't usually set out to take risks, either. They just don't let anything stand in the way of whatever it is they're driven to do. They'll pursue it come hell or high water. Risk just comes with the territory. Despite being driven to do what's never been done, I just think that motivation is stronger than their fear of what might go wrong. Or maybe they just don't think about it.

They weren't born that way. Most of the successful entrepreneurs I've known started with nothing or at least from modest beginnings. Some had parents who did their own thing, but most didn't. They usually had mentors or people who inspired them to trust their gut and have confidence in themselves. That, to me, is a key ingredient in the making of an entrepreneur: the motivation to go for it despite the odds and conventional wisdom.

They're not iconic leaders. Our society loves to create heroes. We hoist them up on impossibly high pedestals. But in my experience, the entrepreneur as iconic leader is a myth. Successful founders usually have partners. Bill Gates had Paul Allen and Steve Ballmer. Steve Jobs had Steve Wozniak. Larry Page had Sergey Brin. Also, entrepreneurs are often better at founding and creating than they are at running and sustaining companies.

They're not very patient. Whoever said patience is a virtue was definitely not a VC or anyone in the startup business, for that matter. Successful entrepreneurs don't usually care much for social convention. They have little patience for convention. They don't want to hear how things are done, have been done, or should be done. They do things their way. But here's a twist. While they will fight you tooth and nail over a key decision, as soon as they realize they're wrong, they'll turn around in a heartbeat.

To me, it all boils down to this: If you want to become an entrepreneur for the sake of becoming an entrepreneur, that's probably not going to work out so well. If, on the other hand, you're driven to accomplish something cool and unique without a safety net, then I think you should go for it.

IMAGE: Lou Dematteis/Corbis
Last updated: Mar 18, 2013

STEVE TOBAK | Columnist

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, an executive coach, and a former senior executive of the technology industry. He's managing partner of Invisor Consulting, a Silicon Valley-based strategy consulting firm. Contact Tobak; follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

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



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