If you take a quick look at the world's most successful entrepreneurs, you'd probably conclude there isn't much to be learned from studying them. The paths they took to become Amancio Ortega (Zara), Larry Page (Google), and Oprah Winfrey (Harpo) are as unique as they are.
But--and it's a huge but--while the behavior of each is idiosyncratic, the thinking is not.
A study by Saras D. Sarasvathy of the University of Virginia's business school shows that serial entrepreneurs--people who have successfully started two or more companies--typically follow the same approach. And if it has worked for them, it may very well work for you.
That approach? It is one that we talked about before in a different context:
They really want to do what they set out to do. If you don't have sufficient desire, you won't give your best effort.
They begin by taking a small step toward their goal. Starting anything new is risky. You don't want to move too far too fast. Everything you have probably read about entrepreneurs says they love risk. Nothing could be further from the truth.
After taking that small step, they stop to see what they have learned. Maybe they've learned their initial goal is still a good one. Maybe the market has told them they need to go in another direction. Maybe they've come to see that they don't have the requisite desire anymore. The point is, after taking that first small step, they come to a complete stop and consider everything that has happened.
Once they understand what they have learned, they take another small step and go through the cycle once again.
In other words, the "formula" for success is figuring out what you truly want to do. And once you know: Act. Learn. Build. Repeat.
What this means
Implicit in this approach is that your initial idea is going to morph over time, given what you learn in the marketplace. Initially, Howard Shultz had Italian opera playing as background music at Starbucks. Michael Dell began his company by doing nothing more than assembling IBM personal computer knockoffs. The best entrepreneurs don't wait until their product or service is perfect. They get it "close enough" and launch. They change whatever it is they have to change as they go.
The key is to get started and follow the Act-Learn-Build approach.
It looks like this:
Take that small step toward your goal ("I am going to offer the best coffee I possibly can, within a retail environment that replicates as closely as possible what someone would experience if they went out for coffee in Italy").
Stop and pause to see what you have learned from taking that small step ("People love the idea of an upscale coffee shop, but they hate the opera soundtrack. Let's drop that, and maybe add some oversized comfortable chairs").
Then repeat ("OK, the chairs were a success; what else can we add, and what should we take away?").
Act. Learn. Build. Repeat. It is how just about every successful company we know was built.
And you always want to borrow from the best.