So You Want To Be An Entrepreneur?

I really want to start my own company. I’ve got some great ideas that I think can impact the world in a big way, and I want to make them a reality. I want to create an über cool culture where I love to work and where lots of other people do, too. We’ll work really hard, but on our own terms. Oh, and I hope to make a bazillion* dollars in the process.

*Actual numbers may vary.

Every year I speak to a number of would-be (and occasionally existing) entrepreneurs who want to pursue an MBA to ensure greater success in their post-graduate ventures. Before we go too far in our conversation, I grill them to see whether they have the DNA of an entrepreneur. If they can’t convince me, I doubt that they’re going to convince admissions committees, much less have fun (or success) starting and running companies. If they can convince me, I’ll have them weave some of their answers to the questions below into their applications:

Are you an initiator? Can you create something from nothing?
This could manifest in a number of ways. If you’ve already started a company, especially if you took it past the idea stage and got some traction, you’re in great shape. I already believe you’ve got a lot of what it takes. Take, for example, one of my clients. While in college, Jake** started an interview-preparation company that attracted two thousand customers and generated revenue. Or you might have started a business, but it failed. You’re fine as long as it wasn’t due to some really huge oversight, decisions that any person with a decent brain wouldn’t have made, or some ethical breach. 

Perhaps you’ve started a smaller-scale money-making venture. Growing up in a former Communist country in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s, Sasha had only her mother’s Soviet-era-style (read: unfashionable) hand-me-downs to wear. Determined to look chic, she deployed her sewing skills to repurpose these clothes, and soon her friends and others were clamoring for her to make them some as well. Amongst other things, this undertaking funded her eventual move to the U.S. for graduate school.

Or maybe you’ve created an organization, say a college club or a volunteer group. Even though you may not have generated revenue, you may have had to sell your idea to the powers that be to get funding, rally participants, or judiciously and creatively use limited resources to realize your vision. For example, Tony, whose parents were Chinese immigrants, founded an organization in his European birth country to increase political participation amongst the Chinese population living there.

If you’ve been working in a company, you still may have had opportunities show your entrepreneurial chops. This is often easier at tech companies that foster intrapreneurship, e.g., Google, which invites employees to spend 20% of their time on things that interest them. If something you noodle up appears to be a viable line of business and you get to head it up—voilà!  Or perhaps even while working in a more traditional type of company, you’ve been able to champion and implement a new idea, for instance, an entirely new product/service or line extension. Working for a major retail chain, Jennifer spearheaded the first-ever in-store sponsorship, collaborating with a natural-foods company on a promotion for a health-related national nonprofit.

If you haven’t done any of the above, did you grow up in a family of entrepreneurs?
Maybe you haven’t launched the Next Big Thing yet yourself, but you were steeped in the entrepreneurial lifestyle growing up. Tony helped out at his family’s teeny restaurant while growing up. His father parlayed this business success into another one, and so on, eventually running a rental-car business and overseeing real estate deals back in China. Witnessing and participating in this, Tony learned some valuable lessons about entrepreneurship. Chaya was pulled into her family’s business at age 14 after the untimely death of her father. She began doing the books and attending client meetings with her mother, ultimately helping sell the business. Both of these clients understood the uncertainty, risk tolerance, resourcefulness, and resilience required to be an entrepreneur—which leads me to my next set of questions.

What’s your risk tolerance?
If you’ve always played it safe, you probably won’t enjoy being an entrepreneur. Are there some examples from your past when you took the road less traveled? What life decisions have you made for which the outcome was really uncertain? Have you made decisions that had a potentially huge downside? These decisions may have had to do with choosing your college or major, summer opportunities, job offers, etc. A prime example of this is Brigitta, who passed up offers at established bulge-bracket investment banks to help build out her company’s brand-new media M&A group. She wanted to be in a more dynamic environment where she could help shape business practices and the organizational culture.