In my work with new startups, I often find people who believe that the terms "entrepreneur" and "inventor" are interchangeable. Yet I find that's like saying there's no difference between "starting a new business" and "creating a new product."
In my experience, most successful entrepreneurs have indeed created a new product, but most people who claim to be inventors have a hard time starting a business.
The simple solution I recommend to inventors is to find a partner who can focus on business and marketing, while you focus on technology. Bill Gates did this with Microsoft, by teaming with Steve Ballmer from Proctor & Gamble, and Steve Jobs, who started Apple, did it in reverse by teaming with Steve Wozniak.
Two people with complementary skills are often equal to three or more.
Unfortunately, most inventors I know tend to look for partners who are also technologists, perhaps because they feel more kinship with them, or they assume great products will lead to great businesses, without any real effort on the business side.
Here are some of the key entrepreneur characteristics most often overlooked by inventors:
1. Driven by customer-centric view of needs, rather than technology.
Understanding what drives customers to buy, in different market segments and cultures, is usually just as challenging as creating and combining technology to deliver function. In fact, many customers have an inherent fear of new technology and the complexity it often brings.
2. Ability to raise money, manage it, and think in financial terms.
A good entrepreneur starts with quantifying the problem, rather than a solution looking for a problem.
They worry about the infrastructure needed to attract and support customers, including investors, employees, organization, marketplace coverage, manufacturing, and delivery.
3. Skilled and motivated by building a multi-disciplined team.
A great inventor is most often a lone technologist who doesn't have the interest or skills for building and managing a team. In fact, they may fear team leadership as a burden, or a potential dilution of their ownership. Certainly interfacing to the outside world may not be an inventor forte.
4. Master of multi-platform communication and marketing.
Even the best solutions these days need to be marketed on multiple platforms, including online, social media, and the proper industry and customer channels for customer geographies.
The old philosophy of "if we build it, they will come" doesn't work in today's information society.
5. Proven ability to spot new trends and willing to take risks.
Believe it or not, the business world changes even faster than technology, so you need to see changes coming in your industry, and even drive them. That means taking calculated risks with new business models, new customer segments, as well as new products and services.
On the other hand, inventors and technologists have some key attributes that every entrepreneur can benefit from in a partnership, including the following:
1. Turns customer needs and desires into solutions.
Dreaming and talking about potential solutions is not enough. Someone has to have the skill and discipline to turn these dreams into reality.
Inventors follow a structured process to assemble and test solutions, file patents for intellectual property protection, and define production details.
2. Provides the focus to balance entrepreneur distractions.
Good entrepreneurs are often diluted in their potential by trying to attack too many new market opportunities or customer requests concurrently. They need the reality check of good technologists to keep their interests bounded, and provide realistic risk assessments on new demands.
3. Ability to keep track of new technology advancements.
New business and product opportunities come from the world of science, as well as the world of customers.
Inventors have the required connections and interest to track these evolutions, and assess their potential for the business at hand, including non-technology challenges.
Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are often cited as two of very few modern entrepreneurs who also have a strong technology background. Mark personally invented the early Facebook social network, while he was at Harvard, and went on to build a huge business.
Elon Musk has a deep technical background that has helped him lead multiple businesses, including SpaceX and Tesla.
Thus I recommend to every inventor and every entrepreneur that they take a hard look at their personal strengths and interests, and not be hesitant to solicit a complementary partner who can make one-plus-one equal three, and get all of us where you want to go in business a lot faster.