When aspiring entrepreneurs ask me if anyone can start a business, it's a question that is not as easy to answer as it sounds. I have been an entrepreneur my entire life so in some ways, I am an expert and, in other ways, my closeness to the subject makes this question more difficult for me to answer. I also have an entire foundation dedicated to helping people start their own businesses.
A few years ago, I gave a lecture in Durham, North Carolina--which I have long considered a secret startup hub down south--about the importance of entrepreneurship in our society as it relates to job creation and economic progress. During the question-and-answer session, a woman stood up and challenged my base assumption that anyone can start a business.
As someone who regularly speaks to audiences, I have come to terms with the fact that I cannot answer everything or please everyone. I also try to think about questions rather than just parroting out some quick answer that I have rehearsed a thousand times. It occurred to me at that exact moment, after a lifetime of being an entrepreneur, that she was right, at least to some degree--not everyone can or should start a business.
If you're thinking of starting a business, here are four questions to ask yourself that can provide some insight.
1. Do you have a burning desire to start a business?
Is there something deep inside of you that makes becoming an entrepreneur barely a choice? Is it something you just feel compelled to do, a song you have to sing?
As someone who believes things are pretty well ordered in the world, I believe this could be the most important factor: Do you really want to do it? If your desire is great, that itself has power. Under almost every condition, I would be remiss to tell you not to try, even if you fail. You don't want to be old and wonder if you should have tried launching that business--or anything for that matter.
2. Have you ever started anything from scratch?
This could be anything from a volleyball club, local gardening group, or lawn-cutting service. It is not a deal-breaker, but I will tell you that your odds of success as an entrepreneur are much higher if you have started something. Most successful entrepreneurs were doing startup stuff at a very early age. This is why I encourage parents to get their kids starting something very early. Going from nothing to something is a big deal that requires a lot of thought and action.
3. Have you failed at something miserably before, and in a public way?
Entrepreneurship is about trial and error, with a focus on error. It is not enough to understand failure--you have to have experienced it.
I worry that, despite the popularity of entrepreneurship, the rate of ownership in private companies is going down. I believe one reason is that we are building a society that safeguards against failure. We are so afraid to fail, especially with our children, that we are immunizing them against ever taking a risk and, God forbid, losing at something. I really worry about college kids because of institutionalized, minimized risk.
4. Can you live with uncertainty, disorder, and constant change?
This is hard to describe, but I think it is important. Startups deal with big changes or they go out of business. While there may be order in the world, there is not necessarily order in your day as an entrepreneur.
Entrepreneurs have to deal with getting things done and being organized but must be open to the fact that running a business is a bit chaotic. Big companies are set up to structure risk and roles. Startups are not this way--and should not be.
Related to this, where McDonalds might change 10 percent in 10 years (a gigantic shift for them), it is not unusual for a startup to change 50 percent in a day. It is hard to describe this unless you have lived it. But, the bottom line is you have to deal well with uncertainty and change. Only you would know if this describes you.
I write reluctantly about this subject because I don't think that what makes a person fit to be an entrepreneur lends itself to a clean list, but these are some points for you to consider before you take the plunge.