Maybe it's opening a bakery, writing a book, selling crafts on Etsy, or building a billion-dollar software startup. But whatever forms it takes, survey after survey (not to mention anecdotal evidence) suggests that a majority of us dream of becoming entrepreneurs.

So what sets those who actually take the plunge from those who only dream? What pushes a keen hobbyist or excellent amateur into actually becoming a business owner? A recent study out of MIT of more than 400,000 people came to a decisive answer, and it's not the one you're probably expecting.

Finances? Personality? Nope, the secret is friends

The study was born when MIT PhD candidate Hyejun Kim stumbled on an unexpected data source: Ravelry.com, a popular hobby site that bills itself as "Facebook for knitting."

From the perspective of the knitters who use the site, Ravelry offers an opportunity to share patterns and advice with fellow enthusiasts. For Kim, it was a gold mine of data on the path people take from hobbyist to entrepreneur. By crunching through data on more than 400,000 knitters and reviewing 99 interviews with users, Kim aimed to find out why some remained weekend warriors while others went on to start knitting-related businesses.

You might think the most important factor might be personality, or perhaps finances were the big secret and either desperate straights or a cushioning bank balance helped people make the transition. Both hypotheses make sense, but both turned out to be wrong.

What was the biggest factor in who went from hobbyist to professional? In short, supportive friends. When interviewed about what helped them make the leap, knitters most commonly mentioned having loved ones who supported and encouraged their entrepreneurial ambitions. The data confirmed these comments.

"Kim's analysis of data on 403,168 individual knitters from 2007 to 2014 backs this up. People who joined a so-called 'stitch n' bitch' group to craft socially were 25 percent more likely than otherwise identical knitters to take the plunge into entrepreneurship. This is true even when correcting for geography, experience, skill level, and productivity," reports The Washington Post.

Why were real-world social connections so important? Further analysis showed that it wasn't that they helped knitters build technical skills. Those who moved on to become entrepreneurs often had ninja-level skills to start with. Instead, these personal ties seem to provide a big confidence boost, which helps turn dreams into reality.

Your social network is your secret weapon

Of course, this study only looks at knitters, but, as the WaPo article notes, other experts in entrepreneurship are heaping praise on Kim's work, suggesting it's not just of interest to crafty types. In fact, other research in the field of network science shows that a large and supportive social network is one of the greatest predictors of career success of any kind.  

For friends and family of those dreaming of starting a business, the message is clear: Don't underestimate your impact as chief cheerleader. You can make all the difference in whether the people you love pursue their big, scary dreams.

Meanwhile, those secretly longing to ditch their job in favor of setting up on their own shouldn't just worry about a solid business plan and bank balance. Practicalities matter, but social support is equally essential. Lifting yourself up into a new life will require the help of a lot of strong arms. Make sure you surround yourself with people willing to boost and support you.

Published on: Feb 14, 2019
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